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November 30, 2009 - Airlines Fined $175,000 for Stranding Travelers

The federal government fined three airlines $175,000 Tuesday for stranding passengers on a plane overnight at the Rochester, Minn., airport in August.

It's the first time airlines have been fined for leaving passengers stuck on tarmacs.

The Transportation Department fined Continental Airlines and its regional airline partner, ExpressJet, $100,000 and assessed a $75,000 fine against Mesaba Airlines, which handled ground operations for the flight.

"I hope that this sends a signal to the rest of the airline industry that we expect airlines to respect the rights of air travelers," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.

Fifty-one Continental Express passengers, including two infants held on laps, were stuck for nearly six hours Aug. 7 on a 50-seat jet operated by ExpressJet. The plane had taken off from Houston for Minneapolis-St. Paul before a thunderstorm diverted the plane to Rochester.

ExpressJet contacted Delta Air Lines subsidiary Mesaba for assistance at the Rochester airport and was inaccurately told passengers couldn't leave the plane and enter the terminal because no security screeners were on duty, the Transportation Department says.

Consumer advocates and some passengers applauded the fines.

Airlines will "really have to think about their behavior before putting passengers in harm's way," says Kate Hanni, executive director of FlyersRights.org.

Link Christin, a college professor in St. Paul who was stranded on the plane, says he was "gratified" by the fines.

"I could not be more pleased that they recognized the gravity of our situation," Christin says.

LaHood says his department will use what it learned from the investigation of the incident "to strengthen protections for airline passengers subjected to long tarmac delays."

The House and Senate are deciding final wording of passenger-rights provisions in a bill to reauthorize and fund the Federal Aviation Administration.

The fines will "hopefully be the catalyst" for passenger-rights legislation and airlines in addressing tarmac delays, says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents 300 corporate travel departments.

Continental spokeswoman Mary Clark says her airline agreed to the Transportation Department's findings in the Rochester incident rather than spend money on lawyers to fight them.

During the delay in Rochester, Clark says, ExpressJet "worked throughout the night to safely deplane the customers at the earliest possible time, yet was unable to because the ground handler failed to provide reasonable assistance and accurate information."

John Spanjers, president of Mesaba Airlines, says, "Mesaba continues to feel it operated in good faith by providing voluntary ground-handling assistance to ExpressJet during this delay."

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