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47 Passengers Trapped Overnight on Regional Jet

Nearly 50 passengers spent Friday night—nine hours in total—aboard a small regional plane on the tarmac in Rochester, Minnesota. The flight (a Continental flight operated by ExpressJet) was diverted from Minneapolis to Rochester due to thunderstorms, where it was forced to remain on the tarmac, with everyone aboard, through the night.

The circumstances that led to this situation are really rather bizarre:

  • Apparently the onboard crew had reached its maximum work hours in the air, meaning another crew had to be flown into Rochester for the flight to Minneapolis.
  • A proposed charter bus between Rochester and Minneapolis didn't work out, for reasons thus far not made public.
  • According to ExpressJet, letting passengers into the airport was (supposedly) not possible because airport personnel, including security screeners, had gone home for the day (it's a small airport). Rochester Airport manager Steve Leqve, however, refutes that explanation, saying security screeners are not required to de-board a plane and allow passengers to sit in the boarding area.

To add insult to injury, all parties involved are playing a game of "point the finger," with Continental passing the buck to ExpressJet, ExpressJet more or less blaming the airport, and the airport claiming innocence.

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So let me just spare the participants in this debacle the hassle of explaining themselves by saying this: What happened in Rochester is unacceptable, preposterous even. In this day and age, with the lessons of past tarmac delays supposedly absorbed into our consciousness, there is simply no excuse for keeping passengers, including babies, aboard a small regional jet with seriously over-used bathrooms and woefully inadequate food supplies (bags of pretzels) overnight.

But it's as clear as ever, though it's been obvious for years, that the current arrangement of airline policies and security measures are incapable of protecting consumers from prolonged confinement on the tarmac, and must be changed. The upcoming FAA Reauthorization Bill, which includes provisions that require airlines to de-plane after three hours unless the pilot believes take-off will occur within thirty minutes, would be a good start.

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