MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Last Friday, what should have been a two and a half hour flight from Houston to Minneapolis became much, much more. Continental flight 2816 was diverted to Rochester, Minnesota. Then, passengers were kept on the plane, on the tarmac, pretty much all night. Now Continental is dealing with the aftermath: furious passengers and really bad publicity.
Mark Zdechlik of Minnesota Public Radio reports.
MARK ZDECHLIK: Last Friday, Lyn Christian(ph) was trying to get back to Minneapolis-St. Paul after a trip to Florida. Christian connected through Houston and was on a Continental express flight bound for the Twin Cities but was cut short with the weather diversion to Rochester, Minnesota. That's where he and 46 other passengers sat for six hours in a cramped regional jet, staring at the spacious terminal building just 50 yards away.
Mr. LYN CHRISTIAN: You know, it went from a situation that we could all manage, to one that hour after hour the smell got worse, the air got less, we got no food, we got no water.
ZDECHLIK: Express Jet operated the Continental Airline's flight. Continental declined a recorded interview. But in a written statement, it called last weekend's incident completely unacceptable. Continental says it will refund ticket prices and provide the trapped flyers with free flight vouchers. Express Jet did not return telephone calls seeking comment today, but told the Associated Press, passengers were not allowed to disembark because they would've had to redo security screenings, and that the screeners had gone home for the night. Rochester Airport Manager Steve Leqve disputes that claim.
Mr. STEVEN LEQVE (Manager, Rochester Airport): There was no reason for those folks to have to sit on that airplane for six hours on the ground in Rochester.
ZDECHLIK: Leqve says the terminal was available and that Delta Airlines repeatedly offered to help get Continental's passengers off of the plane.
Mr. LEQVE: The passengers could've deplaned, come into the terminal building into a completely secure area. That area that is secured here at the airport will accommodate over 500 people. Now, we're talking 47 people here.
ZDECHLIK: Bureau of Transportation Statistics show that in June alone of this year, 278 flights sat for three hours or more on tarmacs. Kate Hanni of the group flyersrights.org says this past weekend's incident hardly broke records for long tarmac delays. But Hanni says it will help her and other advocates pressure Congress into passing a series of consumer protections to include a ban on keeping flyers on grounded planes for more than three hours.
Ms. KATE HANNI (Executive Director, flyersrights.org): Because this particular event was so egregious and the plane was so tiny and the people were so angry, it has really brought it to a head again.
ZDECHLIK: Lyn Christian, who was on the flight to Minneapolis, says when he and others were finally allowed in to the Rochester terminal each was offered one complimentary beverage.
Mr. CHRISTIAN: I got a cup of coffee. I hadn't eaten in 13 hours. So I had my cup of coffee.
ZDECHLIK: When Christian and the others finally flew through to Minneapolis-St. Paul they were put on the same plane they were stuck in for hours. By then, the smelly bathrooms were closed.
For NPR News, I'm Mark Zdechlik, in St. Paul.
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