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Continental Offers Apology, Refund, Blame

Editor’s note: Please take our new Airline Bill of Rights poll, where you can weigh in on Congress’ involvement in protecting consumers from extended tarmac delays. Should more be done? Should it be left up to the airlines? You tell us!

Continental has officially apologized to 47 passengers aboard Flight 2816, who were forced to spend Friday night on the tarmac in Minnesota. All 47 passengers will receive a full refund and credit toward a future Continental flight. But neither Continental, ExpressJet (which operated the flight under Continental’s flight code), nor the airport are stepping up to accept responsibility for the incident.

Continental’s gesture is more than welcome, and a bit of a relief considering the airline initially deflected questions and, presumably, the responsibility of apologizing onto ExpressJet. But in apologizing, Continental reiterated its disappointment with ExpressJet’s role in the fiasco, saying “We are working closely with ExpressJet to resolve the issues surrounding this extended delay as service provided to customers on this flight was completely unacceptable.” But kudos to the airline for stepping up and providing compensation to the affected customers nevertheless.

And good thing, because it appears ExpressJet (and Continental by extension) is, in fact, mostly at fault. A Delta flight found itself in a similar situation but was able to deplane its passengers and bus them to the Twin Cities while Flight 2816 remained on the tarmac. It’s worth noting that Continental doesn’t serve Rochester, and landed there due solely to severe weather in Minneapolis (Delta flies to Rochester but the flight in question was not scheduled to land there). This may have complicated Continental’s ability to find alternative transportation, but either way it does not appear ExpressJet was proactive enough.

ExpressJet, however, maintains it was unable to offload passengers due to security concerns and the fact that screeners had gone home for the day. Rochester airport manager Steve Leqve says this is nonsense, that passengers could have deplaned and waited in the airport. “If it were my decision,” he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “I would have deplaned the passengers and let them mill about the building.”

But that’s exactly the problem: It wasn’t his decision, and in the case of Flight 2816, it seems no one knew whose decision it was. This confusion and the subsequent unwillingness of any involved party to claim accountability for the incident underscores the need for a simple, straightforward set of rules and procedures to be used when flights are stuck on the tarmac. Absent this, the airport and airline are able to point fingers at each other while simultaneously pleading helplessness and, in their own way, assigning a fair amount of the blame to the TSA and its myriad security rules and protocols.

And as too often happens, the victims of this morass are consumers, paying customers who forked over hundreds of dollars only to be treated like cargo and, when the situation turned nasty, as pawns in a PR battle. Let’s hope, then, that the consumer protection measure currently making its way through Congress passes and gives the flying public the peace of mind that this won’t happen to them.

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