Let me say without any equivocation that it has now become perfectly clear that the captain of the ExpressJet ERJ-145, operating as Continental Flight 2816, did everything she could to try to get passengers off that plane.
As passengers became increasingly distressed packed in that cramped regional jet at the Rochester airport all night, the ExpressJet captain, who has not been identified, pleaded, reasoned and cajoled to try to get those passengers into the airport. She was met with a wall of stupidity and near-indifference.
The U.S. Transportation Department jumped on this case with both feet, and is preparing a final report.
I’ve now listened to the transcripts of the conversations between the ExpressJet cockpit and various outsiders, including the dispatcher on duty at the airport for Mesaba Airlines, flying as a Delta Connection flight, and also identified as a flight for Northwest Airlines, which Delta owns.
The ExpressJet captain was stonewalled and blown off, in my opinion, and the plane sat there all night with cabin conditions worsening and babies crying. There was no food and the single toilet was virtually unusable.
You can listen yourself to the audio excerpts released by ExpressJet, and have a look at the timeline. The Transportation Secretary, Ray Lahood, issued an angry statement today (see earlier post) laying the blame on Mesaba and clearing ExpressJet of fault.
Several issues are still unclear to me.
1. There seems to be great confusion about whether the airport was “open” hours after midnight as the ExpressJet plane sat 50 yards from a gate. Two weeks ago the airport manager, Steven W. Leqve, told me in no uncertain terms that it was nonsense to assert that the airport was “closed.” He said, “the bottom line is the airport was open and there was staff available to bring that airplane to the gate” and get the passengers off. Nevertheless, in the recordings you can clearly hear the Mesaba dispatcher telling the ExpressJet captain that the airport was closed. It’s not clear who was speaking for the airport itself (identified as RST) in the recordings, but the ExpressJet timeline released today says that the captain and ExpressJet dispatch in Houston kept requesting access to the terminal “which was being denied by RST Station Operations.” If the airport operations itself was denying access, that contradicts airport manager’s Leqve’s statement.
2. There is a big fat red herring that keeps coming up involving inquiries about getting a charter bus to come from Minneapolis to pick up the ExpressJet passengers and take them to the Minneapolis airport where the flight had been bound before being diverted to Rochester by bad weather. FForget about the damn bus! That was not the issue. The issue was getting the passengers off the stranded plane and into the terminal, where they would have access to rest rooms, benches, vending machines, clean air, etc.
3. The nonsense continues (and is illustrated on the audio tapes) about the TSA not having staff on hand to “re=-screen” the passengers, so therefore the passengers needed to stay on the plane. That is not an issue. Had they been let off, the passengers would have been in a secure part of the airport, just as passengers on any routine connecting flight are.
4. What about that stuff about the ExpressJet crew “timing out” in the middle of the night, which was offered as some vague excuse for them not being able to take the plane to a gate, as a new crew had to be summoned. (That never made the slightest sense to me. A timed-out captain would not have continued sitting on the apron, hoping to take off). The ExpressJet recordings and timeline show clearly that at 5.21 a.m., the captain reported to ExpressJet dispatch in Houston that she and the rest of the crew “would be approaching the crdew critical off (CCO) time.” That is, the crew needed soon to take off for the short flight to Minneapolis or go to a gate soon, under federal law. At 5.58 a.m., the plane was allowed to come to a gate and let the passengers into the terminal.
5. Is this the straw that broke the camel’s proverbial back in terms of enforcement of a passengers bill of rights? I expect it will be.
6. Will this incident galvanize pressure to require the major airlines to be a lot more transparent about what company is actually flying that plane you’re on? Yes.