Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Airport Council: We're Sick of Bad Reporting, Airline Buck-Passing in Stranded-Passenger Incidents

There is some good, reliable reporting (ahem) about that Continental Airlines flight that stranded passengers all night over the weekend in a plane idled at the airport in Rochester, Minn.

Basically, that plane, a 50-seat ERG-145 regional jet operated for Continental by ExpressJet, sat on that tarmac all night because of decisions by Continental dispatchers in Minneapolis, where the plane was headed before being diverted to Rochester by bad weather in Minneapolis. The decision was to keep the plane on the tarmac, hoping that the weather would break in time to get that airplane to Minneapolis by early morning, so it could be repositioned for another flight.

Gotta keep that hardware moving. The fact that 47 passengers, including babies (not clear whether the babies upped the count to over 50), sat all night trapped in a cramped RJ with poor ventilation, screaming babies, a filthy toilet and no food -- these things simply did not enter into the operational calculations.

The airport was open and prepared to receive those passengers, the airport manager, Steve Leqve, told me. Instead of coming to the gate to let people off, the plane remained on the apron because its pilots were instructed by dispatchers to hang in there and hope for a takeoff opportunity. And so the night went on and on, till the crew finally "timed-out" around 6 a.m., when the plane was forced to go to the gate while the airline scrounged for a new crew, which finally flew the plane to Minneapolis, where angry, stricken passengers arrived at 9.15 a.m.

The national airports trade group said today that it is sick and tired of poor reporting and of airlines trying to blame airports for problems caused by airlines alone. See below.

There was some very bad reporting on this story, which is being widely repeated today on Web news sites that just rewrite news accounts from any source that pops up in front of them. In this case, that would be a report in a Minneapolis newspaper that had several incorrect assertions, and one incorrect and ridiculous one.

That account, based on bad information from ExpressJet, stated that one of the reasons the passengers couldn't get off the plane was that the airport's TSA screeners had all gone home, and the passengers could not be rescreened, as necessary, to get back on the plane.

That is patently absurd, and no reporter or editor should have accepted such a ridiculous assertion. The passengers would have entered the secure side of the airport -- just as about a million connecting passengers do every day in airports all over the country -- with no need to be re-screened to get onto an airplane for Minneapolis.

But you'd be surprised at how many credulous accounts are online today, deriding the TSA and the airport.

Credulous news accounts also accepted an apparent ExpressJet statement that the crew on the stranded plane had "timed out" and thus the plane had to sit there till a new crew was found.

Nonsense. If the crew had "timed out" in the middle of the night, the plane would have had to go to the gate. In fact, the crew didn't time out till about 6 a.m., when the plane did in fact finally go to the gate.

And there's some other nonsense about ExpressJet's inability to "charter a bus" to take passengers to Minneapolis. Delta Air Lines, which had a diverted flight that landed AFTER the Continental/ExpressJet flight, managed to get its passengers to the gate and onto a chartered bus for Minneapolis, the airport manager told me.

Absent-TSA, crew time-out, closed-airport, that phantom chartered bus -- all are red herrings.

As Continental itself made clear, there is no excuse for what happened in Rochester Friday night and Saturday morning.

Meanwhile, airports are getting a little sick and tired of taking the blame for airline misfeasance in stranded passenger incidents.

I've been covering these events since the current string of them started in late Dec., 2006. When remedies are applied, it's usually the local airport authorities that do them. Airport managers, acting where airlines have failed their passengers, have even sent out pizza and other food to stranded passengers.

Greg Principato, the president of the airports trade group Airports Council International/North America, is steamed about the bad reporting, including the most recent bad reporting over the Rochester incident.

Here's what he had to say today:

"The story about passengers stuck on a regional jet Friday night in Rochester, Minn., really has me angry. What angers me the most is this: the airline involved blamed the airport, saying it was the middle of the night, the airport couldn’t take care of the passengers, there were no TSA screeners, etc.

This is bull.

The airport was and is ready to receive passengers in this situation. They are an international airport open 24/7. There were clean rest rooms and vending machines available in the sterile area. The notion that the absence of TSA screeners caused this is also nonsense; the people could have been let off and remained in the secure area of the terminal.

This airline and its personnel screwed up. It happens. When it does, you own the mistake, apologize and compensate those who paid a price for the mistake, and then set about making sure it doesn’t happen again. I was pleased today to see that Continental is offering a refund to the passengers and a certificate for a future flight.

What bothers me is the pattern of blaming the airport and I am tired of it. The director of a small southern airport told me a story about being on a plane that landed early at his own airport. The pilot pulled up toward the gate but stopped short announcing that as they were early, “the airport” wasn’t ready. The airport director talked to the pilot about this; it was the airline’s ground staff that wasn’t ready for an early flight, the airport was all set. The pilot didn’t care; he said it because he could.

The same happens when “air traffic control” is blamed for all sorts of problems, including those caused by airline over-scheduling.

The airline business is a complex one; no doubt. Mistakes will happen. But I am tired of airlines blaming everyone else, with airports being their favorite target of choice.

The airport in Rochester, Minn., was ready to help those people. The airline preferred to leave them on the plane and then found it easier to blame the airport and TSA.

Shame on them. They deserve whatever remedies might be forced on them by a traveling public, and the politicians who represent then, who are fed up with such irresponsibility."


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