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What am I owed for a 12-hour flight to nowhere?

The passengers on a recent Continental Airlines flight 89 from Newark to Beijing were given an unwelcome lesson in patience. Halfway through the flight, their plane was diverted on a medical emergency and eventually returned to the states, where it was canceled. Then, the next day, the same passengers were finally sent to China. Are these air travelers owed anything for the trouble?

That’s the question I was left with after hearing from Darryl Champagne, one of the passengers on flight 89, who described the 12-hour flight to nowhere.

We got all the way up to the North Pole, about 6 hours into the almost 14 hour flight. Then we diverted to Goose Bay due to a medical. Then when the medical cleared up a couple of hours later, we re-diverted all the way to Newark as a cancellation.

But the details of this particular flight are even more bizarre. Apparently, one of the passengers didn’t approve of Continental’s handling of the situation, and had to be escorted off the plane in handcuffs.

All told, the passengers were on a plane for half a day.

DEPARTS

City: New York/Newark, NJ (EWR – Liberty)

Gate: C75

Check-in Terminal: Terminal C

Scheduled Time: 12:15 p.m.

Actual Time: 12:17 p.m.

Scheduled Date: Sat., Feb. 23, 2008

ARRIVES

City: New York/Newark, NJ (EWR – Liberty)

Gate: C93

Terminal: Terminal C

Scheduled Time: 12:35 a.m.

Actual Time: 12:48 a.m.

Scheduled Date: Sat., Feb. 23, 2008

So what does Continental owe these passengers?

Well, nothing. According to its contract of carriage, a medical emergency would qualify as a force majeure event. Rule 24 D) addresses the airline’s obligation.

Force Majeure Event – In the event of a Force Majeure Event, CO without notice, may cancel, terminate, divert, postpone, or delay any flight, right of carriage or reservations (whether or not confirmed) and determine if any departure or landing should be made, without any liability on the part of CO. CO may reschedule passenger on another available CO flight or refund any unused portions of the ticket in the form of a travel certificate.

Continental offered the passengers hotel and meal vouchers. But beyond that, it isn’t obligated to do anything else for them.

I think flight 89 is an interesting case study. There’s been a lot of media coverage given to planes that sit on the tarmac for up to 12 hours. But what about the flights that take off and return to the same airport 12 hours later?