Government issues “precedent-setting” fines against three airlines in Rochester delay incident

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Remember last summer’s overnight tarmac stranding incident in Rochester, Minn.? The government does. This morning it issued what it called a “precedent-setting” series of fines against three airlines in connection with the lengthy ground delay.

The U.S. Department of Transportation fined Continental Airlines and ExpressJet Airlines $100,000 for their roles in the Continental Express flight 2816 delay, in which passengers were trapped on an aircraft for a total of 9 1/2 hours. The government also assessed a civil penalty of $75,000 against Mesaba Airlines, which provided ground handling for the flight, for its part in the incident.

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But that’s not the most interesting part of the story.

These are the first enforcement orders punishing carriers for extended tarmac delays, as well as the first time a carrier acting as a ground handler for another airline has been punished for failing to properly help passengers leave an aircraft during an unreasonably long tarmac delay.

This is also the clearest indication to date that the Transportation Department is taking a more pro-consumer attitude toward enforcing the rules. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood noted,

I hope that this sends a signal to the rest of the airline industry that we expect airlines to respect the rights of air travelers. We will also use what we have learned from this investigation to strengthen protections for airline passengers subjected to long tarmac delays.

Continental and ExpressJet, in separate consent orders, were found to have violated the prohibition against unfair and deceptive practices in air transportation because ExpressJet failed to carry out a provision of Continental’s customer service commitment. The commitment requires that if a ground delay is approaching three hours, its operations center will determine if departure is expected within a reasonable time, and if not the carrier will take action as soon as possible to deplane passengers.

ExpressJet also failed to take timely actions required by its procedures, including notifying senior ExpressJet officials and providing appropriate Continental officials with notice of the delay. Continental was found to have engaged in an unfair and deceptive practice since, as the carrier marketing the flight 2816, Continental ultimately is responsible to its passengers on that flight.

This is a positive development for stranded passengers, but how many passengers are subject to a lengthy tarmac delay? Very few. Hopefully, the DOT will turn its attention to other issues that affect all of us.

Update: Responding to the consent orders, Continental tweeted, “We continue to work with our partners & others to reinforce our Customer First commitments. We will comply with DOT’s consent order.”

(Photo: Caribb/flickr creative commons)

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