Friday, August 21, 2009

ExpressJet Crew Not At Fault in All-Night Passenger Stranding, Transportation Department Says

{Updates, with comment from Continental, Delta and ExpressJet}

In another blistering statement, the U.S. Transportation Secretary, Ray Lahood, says today that an investigation shows that the ExpressJet Airlines pilots actually made repeated attempts to try to get 50 stranded passengers off that cramped regional jet stuck on the apron all night after being diverted to the airport in Rochester, Minn. on Aug. 8.

The fault lay instead with local agents of Mesaba Airlines, which flies as a regional airline subcontractor for Delta, which was operating into Rochester that night. Lahood said that the Transportation Department inquiry found that "the local representative of Mesaba Airlines, the only carrier in a position to help the stranded plane, improperly refused the requests of the ExpressJet captain to let her passengers off the plane, telling the captain that the airport was closed to passengers for security reasons."

This, of course, was total hooey, as the airport manager himself insisted to me and other reporters following up on this fiasco. Passengers on the stranded plane, a Continental Airlines flight from Houston to Minneapolis operated by ExpressJet, could clearly see that the airport was open and that a gate was available 50 yards from where they sat.

The Mesaba actions also created confusion at ExpressJet headquarters, where reporters were told that one of the reasons the plane sat there all night with deteriorating cabin conditions was that the TSA staff had gone home for the night and there was no one available to "re-screen" the passengers if they got off.

As the airport manager also told me, that was baloney. The passengers would have deplaned into a secure area of the terminal, just as millions of connecting passengers do every week in airports all over the country, without any need to go through security again to board another flight.

Again, to me, the question is becoming ever more critical about the relationships (too vaguely defined for most passengers to grasp) between major airlines and the subcontractors who fly for them.

Who's in charge here?


UPDATE: Responding to Lahood, Continental Airlines issued this statement from its CEO, Larry Kellner:

"Continental takes responsibility for the care of its customers, whether they are on our regional partners' flights or on our own. We are gratified that Secretary Lahood recognized the crew's efforts to resolve the situation. While the result for the customers was clearly unacceptable, it is evident that the ExpressJet crew worked through the night to resolve the situation and was frustrated with Delta Connection's [my note: i.e., Mesaba] failure to provide reasonable assistance. We have processes in place to avoid these situations and those processes clearly broke down in this case. We are working to ensure that doesn't happen again."

Later, Delta Air Lines released this statement from its CEO, Richard Anderson:

"Because customer service is so important to our industry, I have personally reached out to Continental's chairman and CEO to ensure we fully understand the facts of this unfortunate incident. Delta is working with Mesaba to conduct an internal investigation, continue our full cooperation with the DOT and share all the facts with Continental."

Here is a link to the lengthier ExpressJet statement.


Meanwhile, here is the full statement from Secretary Lahood, who still sounds hopping mad about this mess:

"The DOT has concluded the preliminary phase of our investigation into the August 8 tarmac delay by Continental Airlines on a flight operated by ExpressJet Airlines. As you may recall, passengers were stuck in a plane on the ground in Rochester, Minnesota for almost six hours. We have determined that the ExpressJet crew was not at fault.

In fact, the flight crew repeatedly tried to get permission to deplane the passengers at the airport or on a bus.

Now, like many of you, I was outraged when I heard about this incident. And, like many of you, I've read a lot of conflicting stories about what happened that night--and I can appreciate any confusion readers may have. So, here is what our investigation found.

* The local representative of Mesaba Airlines--the only carrier in a position to help the stranded plane--improperly refused the requests of the ExpressJet captain to let her passengers off the plane, telling the captain that the airport was closed to passengers for security reasons.

This is what led to the nightmare for those stuck on the plane.

The Mesaba rep said this apparently because there was no one from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) available to screen passengers. But, in fact, TSA procedures allow passengers to get off the plane, enter the terminal and re-board without being screened again as long as they remain in a secure area.

* While the crew of the Continental Express flight did what they could to assist passengers, more senior personnel within Continental or ExpressJet should have become involved in an effort to obtain permission to take the passengers off the plane.

You know, learning more about the facts of this incident hasn't done a whole lot to temper my anger at the way those passengers were treated. I mean, there was really a complete lack of common sense here. It’s no wonder the flying public is so frustrated.

I will say that this is one of the most thorough investigations ever conducted by the DOT's Aviation Enforcement Office. Members of the Office interviewed passengers, the flight crew, airport personnel and others with knowledge of the situation. They also listened to audio recordings from the aircraft and the dispatcher. In addition, Continental’s customer service commitment, contingency plan for flight delays, and contract of carriage were reviewed.

The Aviation Enforcement Office is considering appropriate action to take against Mesaba as it completes the investigation, which it expects to conclude within a few weeks.

As I said in a previous blog post, DOT has proposed regulations requiring airlines to adopt contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays and to incorporate these plans in their contract of carriage, and we have asked for comment on whether rulemaking should set a uniform standard of time after which carriers would be requires to allow passengers to deplane.

What has the flying public gained from this investigation? Our findings will be used to help formulate a final rule that will provide better protection for airline passengers. The bottom line is that commercial aviation is complicated by many factors--weather and security among them. But, that passengers should be treated with respect? That part is simple."



imbaird said...

I think the overwhelming evidence in this case points to negligence on Mesaba's part. Interestingly enough Mesaba has a "customer first" policy according to their website which then rolls over to their owner NWA's Customer policy (note NWA is now owned by Delta). The following link clearly reads that this policy is also part of the carrier's "contract of carriage." Now granted Mesaba is not associated with Continental, they clearly don't have the integrity to honor what is detailed in their own customer service policy:
"Meet your essential needs during long delays, and will make every reasonable effort to provide for food, water, restroom facilities and access to medical treatment for customers aboard an aircraft that is on the ground for an extended period of time."
If they treated people this way on the Continental flight, I wonder how they treat travelers on their own flights? As a traveler, I make every effort to avoid these small regional operators. They simply do not have the competent staffing to operate safely and with basic common sense in this industry. In case anyone thinks I'm being too hard on our very overworked and underfunded airline industry, take time to think about the families who live in the aftermath of Colgen Air Flight 3407 and Comair Flight 191.

paleolith said...

I wonder why the captain didn't declare a medical emergency and say "the plane is coming to the gate, like it or not".

I wonder why the passengers didn't say "if the plane isn't moving in ten minutes, the emergency exits are coming open."

This of course is 20/20 hindsight.