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Holding Patterns

A few years ago, I was traveling from Dallas to Detroit when my flight was diverted to Fort Wayne, Ind.

After stormy skies over Detroit forced us into a holding pattern, the plane began to run low on fuel. Shortly after we landed for a refueling stop, the crew reached its maximum allowable work time for that day.

Passengers were deplaned and we were given the option of waiting for a new crew to arrive or leaving the airport (without checked baggage) on our own. Knowing I could not get a connection that night in Detroit to my final destination, Newark, N.J., I rented a car and drove 12 hours to Newark. I arrived just in time to pick up my luggage as it came off the next morning's first flight. But, since there was no guarantee I could have gotten a seat on that flight, I reckoned I had done well and that things probably could have been worse.

What I did not know was just how much worse they could have been. Recently, another flight departing from Texas faced a similar situation. Continental Express Flight 2816 landed in Rochester, Minn. around midnight last Saturday after it became apparent that weather conditions would make it impossible to touch down in Minneapolis as scheduled. Once on the ground, crew members reached their maximum time allowance.

But the Continental Express passengers were not given the choice, as I was, of waiting comfortably in the terminal or continuing their journey on the ground. Instead, they sat on the tarmac. And sat. The 47 passengers were kept trapped in the cramped plane for approximately five and a half hours amid the reek of the single onboard toilet (which did not flush) and the wailing of babies.

Airline officials said passengers could not be deplaned because security was not available at the time. Therefore, passengers who exited into the terminal could not be cleared to return to the plane once it was ready to get back in the air. However, that does not explain why passengers could not wait in the gate area, where they would have had access to vending machines and working toilets without having to leave the secured area. It also does not explain why passengers were not allowed to ditch the flight altogether and make their own way to Minneapolis. In short, the official explanation was baloney.

In fact, the airline might have even provided bus service to Minneapolis for the passengers. That is what Northwest did. Northwest Airlines Flight 120 from Phoenix to Minneapolis, also diverted due to inclement weather, arrived in Rochester shortly after the Continental Express flight. Anthony Black, a spokesman for Delta, which now owns Northwest, said “We then made provisions for the passengers to be bused back to Minneapolis.” By the time the Continental Express passengers were allowed off their plane, the Northwest passengers were nearing their destination.

Federal officials are now investigating whether ExpressJet Airlines, which operated the flight, or Continental Airlines, which booked and marketed it, violated any laws. However, even if no existing laws were violated in this case, such behavior on the part of airlines should be outlawed.

The Senate is considering legislation that would prohibit airlines from keeping passengers waiting on the tarmac for more than three hours when they could be safely deplaned. A House version of the bill, which has already passed, simply requires that airlines submit a plan to the Transportation Department for letting passengers off.

The House version does not go far enough. Holding passengers against their will for extended periods of time needs to be illegal, not just discouraged. And, if necessary, laws should be changed to allow local law enforcement authorities to intervene in extreme cases that effectively amount to unlawful detention. The mere act of boarding a commercial airliner does not mean we turn over complete control of our persons, indefinitely, to airline managers who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away. Planes are not jails and passengers are not prisoners.

Also at issue in this case is the fact that passengers traveling on Continental Airlines tickets were, in fact, left in the hands of ExpressJet. Continental uses ExpressJet, along with Chautauqua Airlines, to carry passengers under its Continental Express label, essentially renting out its name and hard-earned reputation for safety and customer service, such as it is, to smaller airlines with very different standards. (Chautauqua also carries passengers under arrangements with Delta, American and other major airlines.)

These standards were tragically displayed six months ago when an under-trained, inexperienced crew on a Colgan Air flight, marketed under the Continental Connection label, mishandled the aircraft in bad weather. The aircraft crashed near Buffalo, N.Y., killing 51 people.

Continental and other mainline carriers need to ensure that their commuter airline affiliates are prepared to treat passengers decently, even when transportation law and regulations permit them to behave otherwise. In the meantime, I am putting ExpressJet and Colgan Air on my personal no-fly list.

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