By Deepa Seetharaman
A preliminary investigation into the overnight stranding of a Continental Airlines Inc flight earlier this month has cleared the aircraft's crew and blamed the local representative of a rival airline.
The U.S. Transportation Department said the crew on the flight, which was operated by ExpressJet Airlines for Continental, repeatedly sought permission to deplane their 47 passengers at the airport in Rochester, Minnesota in the early hours of August 8.
Instead, they were stuck on the ground for nearly six hours with just pretzels to eat, after the local representative of Mesaba Airlines erroneously cited security rules for refusing to allow the passengers off the plane.
"There was a complete lack of common sense here," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement. "It's no wonder the flying public is so angry and frustrated."
Continental and ExpressJet made more than 30 phone calls in an effort to help passengers leave the aircraft, ExpressJet said in a statement.
Mesaba Airlines, the only carrier able to assist Continental at the airport, is a subsidiary of Northwest Airlines, which was bought by Delta Air Lines last year. Mesaba disagreed with the government findings.
According to the investigation, the Mesaba representative told the stranded flight that the airport was closed to passengers, "apparently" because there was no one from the Transportation Security Administration to screen passengers.
"In fact, TSA procedures allow passengers to get off the plane, enter the terminal and re-board without being screened again as long as they remain in a sterile area," the department said in a statement.
Mesaba says the representative was helping the airline as a "courtesy."
The carrier said in a statement it "respectfully disagrees" with the Transportation Department's findings, adding they were inconsistent with Mesaba's initial internal review.
"Delta is working with Mesaba to conduct an internal investigation, continue our full cooperation with the DOT and share all the facts with Continental," said Delta's Chief Executive Richard Anderson in a statement.
Shares of Continental closed up 8.4 percent to $13.05 in Friday trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
EXPRESSJET, CONTINENTAL RESPOND
Flight 2816 from Houston to Minneapolis was diverted to Rochester International Airport due to severe thunderstorms over Minneapolis. ExpressJet said it parked on a ramp parallel to the terminal behind a Northwest Airlines flight that was also diverted due to the storm.
Passengers were stranded in the ExpressJet plane from 12:28 a.m. to about 6 a.m., transportation officials said.
A safety system that alerts high-level supervisors if a plane is on tarmac for more than three hours failed to activate because the captain opened the main cabin door to talk to the Mesaba representative and to provide better ventilation for the passengers, said ExpressJet spokeswoman Kristy Nicholas.
"While the result for the customers was clearly unacceptable, it is evident that the ExpressJet crew worked through the night to resolve the situation and was frustrated with Delta Connection's failure to provide reasonable assistance," said Continental Chief Executive Larry Kellner in a statement.