Transportation Department shifts blame in tarmac incident to Mesaba

mesabaThis is an interesting twist.

Remember the Continental/ExpressJet tarmac incident earlier this month? Everyone was quick to blame the airline for holding passengers overnight against their will in Rochester, Minn. Now, a preliminary investigation by the Transportation Department has found that Mesaba, a regional carrier owned by Delta Air Lines, was the likely culprit.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood posted the findings to his blog this morning, which effectively vindicated ExpressJet’s crew. (Here’s a related news release that just crossed the wire.)

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.

Specifically, the DOT 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.

That, says LaHood, 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.

Continental isn’t totally off the hook. 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, according to the DOT.

The timing of this report is curious. As my friends over at the Dallas Morning News aviation blog pointed out, the Transportation Department doesn’t usually release preliminary results. I asked my agency contact about that. His response?

[The Secretary] may have wanted it out because he knows he’s going to get questions on it today. Or, he may have wanted it out to make it clear to that forum that the DOT is not sitting quietly on commercial aviation matters. Or, maybe no one told him that we don’t usually announce preliminary results.

Either way, LaHood remains upset about the incident. The Secretary added,

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’ve asked Mesaba, Delta, Continental and ExpressJet for a comment on the findings, and will update this post when I have them.

LaHood hints that his agency may toughen its rules regarding ground delays.

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.

Hopefully, it’s more than a hint.

Update (12:30 p.m.) Continental has responded to the DOT report:

Continental takes responsibility for the care of its customers, whether they are on our regional partners’ flights or 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 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.

Update 2 (2:30 p.m.) Delta has issued a statement.

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.

Update 3 (3:20 p.m.) Mesaba has chimed in.

Mesaba respectfully disagrees with the DOT’s preliminary findings as they are incongruent with our initial internal review of the incident. Because Continental Express Flight 2816 diverted to an airport where they have no ground handling service, Mesaba offered assistance as a courtesy during this delay. While the investigation is ongoing, Mesaba is fully cooperating with the Department of Transportation and looks forward to the final report.

(Photo: Caribb/Flickr Creative Commons)

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