Continental’s Overnight Excursion in Rochester, Minnesota

I haven’t commented on the ridiculousness that is Continental #2816 yet, and I’ve received plenty of emails asking me why that hasn’t happened. You know the flight; that’s the one where the passengers got stuck on their little regional jet all night long after diverting from Minneapolis/St Paul to Rochester, Minnesota because of bad weather. I decided to wait to write a post until I could get full information, and I simply couldn’t get it. But now that the initial report is out from the DOT, I’ve got enough to start talking. Surprisingly, it points to Delta Connection carrier Mesaba as the real problem here, though they are denying it.

There’s a lot of finger pointing going on, that’s for sure. Just about everyone originally jumped on ExpressJet (the operator of the Continental Express flight) for not getting people off quickly enough and on Continental for not taking enough responsibility for the flight. Turns out that while they do take some blame, much of it lies on little Mesaba, the regional that’s owned by Delta and the handling agent at the Rochester airport.

Slumber Party Guide

In the end, however, the issue not who is at fault in this specific situation but rather the fact that it keeps happening. (There was another one on Sun Country on Friday.) Do we really need a passenger bill of rights to prevent these things? I still say no. Let’s take a look at some of the things people are saying should have happened.

  • They were stupid for diverting to Rochester when Continental doesn’t have an operation there. They should have diverted somewhere else.

    Sure, that would have made sense. They could have gone elsewhere and handled things their own way, but if you look at the timeline (pdf), they did it for a reason. The original alternate was Madison, Wisconsin, but by switching to Rochester, that would “give the aircraft additional fuel to circle MSP in anticipation of a break in the weather.” It was a gamble that didn’t pay off, but it could have and then everyone would have been happy.

  • They should have just left Rochester when they couldn’t get people off the plane.

    Easier said than done. They did get refueled in Rochester, so they were ready to takeoff, but the weather just didn’t cooperate. Recordings of the captain (wav) make it sound like she was uncomfortable with flying in that weather even though there might have been a small window. It was the end of a very long day and if she wasn’t comfortable, I wouldn’t have wanted her flying.

  • They should have put the passengers on a bus

    As we learn in one of the recordings, they tried to get a bus but the bus companies wouldn’t send anything because of flash flooding between Minneapolis and Rochester.

  • They should have at least let them into the terminal.

    Seriously. They should have. It appears that it wasn’t really ExpressJet’s fault, entirely. There were plenty of communications with the Mesaba people trying to get them off the plane. First Mesaba told them the terminal was closed and they couldn’t send anyone in. Then they said that they couldn’t get a jet bridge and they didn’t have a place for them in the terminal. That’s just awful.

  • They should have gone around Mesaba’s local crew and made things happen.

    Yes, they should have. The DOT said that it should have been escalated and ExpressJet says the same thing. Senior management should have been alerted so that they could have gotten these people off that plane.

  • The passengers should have just gotten off the plane or called 911.

    I can’t figure out why this didn’t happen. The door was open, but they couldn’t get any stairs and there was another airplane right nearby. Still, this is only a few feet off the ground, so it would have been a somewhat unsafe drop but not a horrible one. I just would have gotten out of there and taking my chance on getting arrested. I have no idea why everyone sat around all night. Maybe they were all nice Midwesterners.

So did we learn anything? Maybe a little. We definitely learned that crews should escalate the issue as high as possible if it doesn’t get resolved quickly. We also learned that passengers should just walk off the damn plane if they get stuck for that long. But this really was a combination of a bunch of things coming together to screw these poor passengers.

The problem is that this ends up stoking the fire for a government-regulated passenger bill of rights, and I still don’t think that’s going to help. There are plenty of things about this industry that the government doesn’t understand – they’re likely to come up with a bill that makes things worse for everyone. But, if the industry keeps letting crap like this happen, then there isn’t going to be another option.

But what would that have done here? Would Mesaba get fined? That might still happen anyway. Would the passengers magically have been transported off the plane? Not simply because of a law. A federal law probably wouldn’t have changed much here. Continental, for example, already has a policy to get people off the plane after a certain period of time. I think Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said it best.

There was a complete lack of common sense here. It’s no wonder the flying public is so angry and frustrated.

I agree, but can you regulate common sense? I don’t think so. All I know is that the airlines need to take this more seriously.

[Original Images via http://www.flickr.com/photos/madfox/ / CC BY 2.0 and ExpressJet.com]

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63 Comments on "Continental’s Overnight Excursion in Rochester, Minnesota"

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Dan
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Crank,

You got a point there about regulation… we speed all day long, and don’t get in trouble, don’t we? Fines/refunds after the fact may simply be an issue that escapes the front line grunts who actually have to handle the passengers in this situation.

What I want to know is why they couldn’t even get their toilet serviced. Signature RST is open 24/7, and there’s no reason they couldn’t have pulled up with the lav cart, given that they’re likely the ones who fueled the plane.

DRG
Guest

I wouldn’t want to be the pioneer passenger who takes things into their own hands and barges off the plane, but I would take my hat off to the guy who does become that pioneer and gets arrested for it. And you know it will happen eventually.

Chuck
Guest

The stairs are built into the door on these kinds of planes…no airstairs are required. Now it may be they couldn’t get anyone to pull a jetbridge up to the plane…but stairs should not have been an issue.

Andrew
Guest
It’s easy to say, “Why didn’t someone with the physical ability just get up and jump off the plane?” (and presumably encourage others to do so). Easy to say, harder to do. There are entire sub-fields of Sociology and Psychology that study people’s behavior in groups. The sort of “individual action” you often see in movies where one person fearlessly sets themselves apart from an otherwise equal group and charges forward is actually very rare in real life (not impossible, but rare). If there is perceived equality within a situation or circumstance among a group of individuals, there is very… Read more »
kjeffreys
Member
If an airport does not have the capability to get people off a plane within a short period of time — regardless of the reason or the atmospheric conditions — it should not be allowed to continue to operate as an airport. Period. And are passengers really stuck with the following options? 1. Jump 2. Stick it out with your legs crossed 3. Set the plane on fire and wait for the fire trucks Let’s face it — in the absence of a law forcing them to do otherwise, airlines will continue to treat passengers like cattle. There is plenty… Read more »
obmark1
Member

Excellent post Andrew. I was wondering when someone would get into the psychology of why this didn’t happen. I think 5 years ago, myself and my family would fit the sterotype of waiting it out and expecting change. These days, after discussing this with my wife and 11 and 14 year old sons, I think the four of us would have just “jumped” and taken our chances with the airport police. Sometimes, common sense just has to take precedence. Too bad the folk/s at Mesaba didn’t see it that way.

Chuck
Guest

My bad; I guess I was confusing it with the Canadair RJ model. Thanks for clarifying.

james
Guest

Andrew your comment made me think of times you’re at a red light that stops cycling – and there are a few lanes of cars realizing it’s been way too long.

Once one person makes the decision to run the broken light, the rest have no problem following. And you rarely see one person go but another stay put.

Safety in numbers I guess.

lupdy
Member
Same thing happened to us with continental from TPA to IAH and diverted to Austin… Sat on the ground for 6 hours… no water.. no air and lots of other planes around us… weather bad in Houston was the cause.. but the kicker was the other planes took off way before us and although we were early in line we did not leave Austin until the very end. Would not let us off the plane and sent me a “too bad- So sad” letter after when we complained… So to get even we have not flown them and will be… Read more »
Oliver
Guest

The government is already regulating things like overbooking (IDB compensation). Sure, it’s always easy to say they don’t understand the business of air transportation and more regulation isn’t needed or the right approach. But leaving it to the industry to solving the problem is clearly not working either. Hefty fines payable to the passengers in cases like this would give airlines an incentive to come up with better processes to deal with situations like this (where was ExpressJet’s escalation procedure?)

Has anyone at any of the companies involved in this incident been fired yet?

Steve
Guest

If passengers had just gotten off the plane, they would have threatened them with a felony and they would have been incarcerated at the Rochester jail.. maybe better than the ERJ.

Having been held hostage by Northwest a few years back in Detroit (airport closed, yada yada), I can sympathize. Thank god I had been upgraded to First and had a window seat. The poor folks in coach (110% full DC-9, with screaming babies: 110 coming from lap children) were much worse off.

Vidiot
Guest

Given how touchy airlines and airline personnel are these days about not following their directions, I would not have wanted to risk federal charges (even bogus ones) by leaving the airplane.

I think, though, that if I had been on that flight, I’d have called every media outlet I could find, to say nothing of the local cops.

Chris
Guest
Quick Question CF… “They should have at least let them into the terminal. Seriously. They should have. It appears that it wasn’t really ExpressJet’s fault, entirely. There were plenty of communications with the Mesaba people trying to get them off the plane. First Mesaba told them the terminal was closed and they couldn’t send anyone in. Then they said that they couldn’t get a jet bridge and they didn’t have a place for them in the terminal. That’s just awful.” Did you hear any of those communications? From the tapes I listened to (including this one: http://rickseaney.com/2009/08/24/audio-pilot-pleads-to-deplane-calls-situation-ridiculous) it sounds like… Read more »
JM
Guest
This whole disaster reflects an epic lack of common sense. Unusual circumstances transpire and meltdown occurs because no one with common sense intervenes in time. Sometimes the “playbook” and contingency plans don’t anticipate every situation. A lack of common sense seems to be a general problem these days– and a malady not unique to airlines. How about this Amtrak delay in 2005 of one of its Florida trains of 20 hours or so? : http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.htmlres=990CE5DD1030F932A05751C1A9639C8B63 Clearly, there are some folks here who need to look for a different line of work– especially the Mesaba RST station manager. If only the… Read more »
DRG
Guest

@ james:

Here here. All it would take is one particularly annoyed person and the herd mentality would take over to the opposite effect.

JM
Guest
Oliver
Guest

@Chris

what kind of crime-ridden city is Rochester that they need to lock up the airport bathrooms in the sterile area overnight

And are you serious suggesting that there is no advantage to being in the airport building over being crammed into a ERJ? I mean, seriously, you are asking what the pax would have done in the building. How about stretching out? How about sleeping on the benches? How about walking around? How about…. jeez, I don’t even know if I should take that seriously…

Dave
Guest

Actually, airstairs are not built into the doors of ExpressJet’s ERJs as they requested their aircraft without doors for ease of docking at jetways (a.k.a. no RJ adapter needed with these planes).

Cranky – where did you read the door was open? The articles/PR Releases I read stated that the cockpit door was open so that passengers could ask the flight crew questions, not the main cabin door.

Oliver
Guest

Easy way to get off the plane:

– complain about shortness of breath or chest pain.

A
Guest
Talking amongst co-workers that share my disdain for RJ’s all agree that in that situation they would just open the emergency hatch and jump off the wing. Yes, you certinaly would get arrested in the short term but I feel the public and politicians would pick up your cause and no serious charges would hold up. This has happened all too frequently for it to continually be brushed off. Psychology aside, someone taking this type of situation into their “own hands” is the breaking point we all need. Secondly, FAA and other regulations aside, it’s simply asinie that when a… Read more »
Chris
Guest
@Oliver: I wasn’t suggesting that the ERJ was more comfortable than the terminal but since the flight crew kept trying to get to MSP that night… how was the TINY terminal going to be any better? The crew would have timed out, there was no bus, the Mesaba employees didn’t have any food/water for the PAX and there is no way to keep the people there. So good luck with getting bags to those who checked them and/or re accommodating displaced pax. No hotel vouchers. No food vouchers. Heck, if the weather was so bad roads were washed out, good… Read more »
Oliver
Guest

@Dave — from the ExpressJet timeline:

“00:30-01:30 In addition, the cabin door had remained open to augment cabin ventilation.”

Chris
Guest

Does anyone realize that if the weather was so bad the plane couldn’t leave, it was a liability to ALL INVOLVED to let pax off if there was no jetbridge.

Additionally, to free up a jetbridge they’d have had to push back one of the RON planes thus putting a ramper out in dangerous conditions.

Would you rather the story have been “Ramp agent struck by lightning trying to bring plane full of people to gate after insistence by captain”

David SF eastbay
Member
I still don’t get why people didn’t use their cell phones to find the local police number or (most) would call 911 to report being held hostage. I would have try to find the local phone number for the local TV station. That would have gotten at least TV cameras on the scene to show the plane and get in the face of the airport management about it. So there was Mesaba employees at the airport that late, a fuel company there that late, but no one who works for the airport itself? No airport night manager etc who would… Read more »
Jason Steele
Guest
Everyone is speculating on whether or not they could remain in the terminal and still reboard. I suspect there were plenty of people who wanted to leave the terminal and just find a motel or alternate transport. Why is that never mentioned? I am going to have to disagree with Cranky on the necessity of a law here. The only reason that they remained on the plane was that at least one idiot thought it was against the law to let them off. They will obviously do anything to avoid breaking the law. Until the law requires them to release… Read more »
ShaneLAX
Guest

Regarding stairs needed to disembark the passengers, is this not an E145 with built-in stairs?…

http://www.embraercommercialjets.com.br/english/content/home/pop_up_img.asp?img=145_03

Cranky, that photo link you provided above doesn’t seem completely conclusive. It seems like regular maintenance that might have required the stairs to be put away.

Vidiot
Guest

RST also has an FBO — Signature — that’s open 24/7. I bet they had airstairs or could rig something up. They’d also have lounges and bathrooms. It sounds like Mesaba was being difficult, but I’m surprised the captain didn’t try the FBO right there on the field.

David SF eastbay
Member
Since this has been a big new event, hopefully airports everywhere will have gotten word to every airline and every worker what rules apply for their airport when something like this happens. And now hopefully the flying public has been educated to know just because an airline/airport worker says something, it doesn’t mean it’s correct. While this didn’t help those on the plane that night, events like this do help to make changes and educate people. With winter coming, it will be interesting to see what happens this season when flights are grounded or delayed due to snow. I think… Read more »
jaybru
Member
It’s yet another example of poor planning for any and all types of contingencies in this industry. The same thing happens time after time. And, the fact that this involved a regional jet operation, even one between two major cities, IAH-MSP, raises more questions in my mind about the value of these types of operations. Not that the majors don’t screw things up themselves, but…! It’s a Continental flight, operated by an independent operator, ExpressJet, part of Express Holdings, trying to work through the main operator at Rochester, with Mesaba, owned by NW, which is owned by DL. Let the… Read more »
Oliver
Guest

@Cranky — a hefty fine (say, $1k per hour per passenger after 3 hrs on the ground) would have given ExpressJet operations an incentive to do something. After all, which operations guy would want to take the call from the CFO the next day to explain why they caused a $300,000 fine? Plus it would have given the passengers reasonable compensation for pain and suffering.

ttjoseph
Guest

@ Chris:
It’s very rare for lightning to strike a person. Would you rather the story have been “pax dies of heart attack during imprisonment in plane”? That one is much more likely.

Chris
Guest

ttjoseph wrote:

@ Chris:
It’s very rare for lightning to strike a person. Would you rather the story have been “pax dies of heart attack during imprisonment in plane”? That one is much more likely.

But the point is that it happens and if the weather was so bad that the pilot couldn’t take back off (evidenced by the tapes towards the end of the evening) was it safe for people to get in/out of the plane via the tarmac.

BenW
Guest
@Chris: The weather was bad at RST for part of the night, but they landed at RST because of bad weather at MSP. As Cranky said, it was bad weather in the area. Yes, it was bad *at times* as RST, but not all night. Also, I’d love to see you tell the people on that plane that they wouldn’t have been able to do anything in the terminal, so why get off the plane. I’m sure they would love to hear that. One last thing, you said Mesaba wouldn’t have any keys to the airport facilities, but Mesaba is… Read more »
Chris
Guest
@ BenW: You miss the point. If there are planes that RON at the gates and the weather is not conducive to having rampers down there, how are the planes getting backed away from the gates and then the other planes getting brought up. You need at least 3 rampers to get the planes away from the gate. 2 wing walkers and someone to drive the tug. Were there 3 employees at RST 2+ hours after their last plane arrived, HIGHLY unlikely, it doesn’t take that long to clean a CR9 (last arrival at 10:15pm ). NW & ExpressJet planes… Read more »
Jason H
Guest
Jason Steele wrote: I am going to have to disagree with Cranky on the necessity of a law here. The only reason that they remained on the plane was that at least one idiot thought it was against the law to let them off. They will obviously do anything to avoid breaking the law. Until the law requires them to release the passengers, this will happen again and again. Legally speaking, doing nothing is the safest thing for everyone, except those trapped on the plane. Until that changes, this will re-occur. I have to take serious issue with the ad… Read more »
BenW
Guest
@Chris: I’m not missing the point at all. I’m saying that the weather, for good parts of the night, WAS conducive. The weather was not bad at RST all night. So there were definitely times in between the storms when ground crew could safely perform their duties. Also, have you heard of Airstairs? I would be very surprised if RST didn’t have any. Yes, it might have been raining, but I’ve gotten off of planes via airstairs in the rain plenty of times. Again, it wasn’t storming all night, so there were time periods in which passengers could have gotten… Read more »
Chris
Guest
@ BenW: If you are saying the weather WAS conducive, why didn’t they leave to get to MSP, that’s what ExpressJet was trying to do all night! An attended airport doesn’t always mean an open airport with respect to full ground services. At my home airport Delta handles ground services and I can tell you that they are gone by about 1 hour after the last plane has landed. In the time between then and about 2 hours before the first flight, the only people around are the airport police. MLB is considered open 24 hours. Finally, this note says… Read more »
Jason Steele
Guest

@ Jason H:

According to the DOT report “There was a complete lack of common sense here,” If that is not the description of an idiot, I don’t know what is. I don’t think this is an offensive ad hominem attach if the person or persons that I am criticizing are unnamed.

trackback
[…] Cranky Flier has a great analysis of the incident if you want to know more, but in our view more than anything, this was a testament to just how incompetent and bureaucratic the airline system is a whole. The DOT report goes on to say “It’s no wonder the flying public is so angry and frustrated.” These runway tarmac “parties” happen all too often (SunCountry just had another one last Friday). And an analysis by USA Today has a graph of tarmac delays with – you guessed it – ExpressJet at the very top, followed by Comair and Continental.… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member
I haven’t read through the whole comments, but my telecom infused thinking says they should make a habit of esclating with the handling agent. The delayed carrier notifies the handling agent that they want airstairs/a jetbridge, etc. One hour later they escalate to the next level of management, at the handling carrier, and escalate every hour after that until they get to the CEO. (God Forbid it gets that high.) I’d be in support of a federal law that says they have to publish their handling escalation procedures. (In a federal tarrif or something along those lines, no need to… Read more »
BenW
Guest

@Chris:

They landed at RST because the weather at MSP wasn’t conducive. If the weather had been that bad at RST they wouldn’t have landed there! You don’t divert TO the airport with bad weather, you divert FROM the airport with bad weather.

Chris
Guest
BenW wrote: @Chris: They landed at RST because the weather at MSP wasn’t conducive. If the weather had been that bad at RST they wouldn’t have landed there! You don’t divert TO the airport with bad weather, you divert FROM the airport with bad weather. Ok so you are suggesting they landed at RST and planned to offload immediately? NO. They landed at RST and continued to try to make it to MSP until 4:30am at which point, around 5am, they timed out. Originally they were expecting to wait an hour (until 1:30am) at RST. At that point it would… Read more »
Matthew Gulino
Guest
I think some regulation is required…but not necessarily punitive as Cranky fears. The FAA’s traffic management program(s) is a federal program that works WITH the airlines to mitigate weather delays by controlling traffic flow to certain airports. This has arguably done a great deal to reduce the number of people stranded on grounded planes with no information. Maybe regulation could come in the form of specific procedures (developed in conert with the major/minor carriers…cause God knows they’re on the Hill in the form of their lobbyists) to “escalate” in these situations. Fines are great when you are trying to persuade… Read more »
Wonko Beeblebrox
Guest
I guess this is where I point out that one does not need to be parked at a jetway to get into the terminal… Just park the plane in a place where it is not likely to be hit by anything, have the FA slowly jump to the ground and then, one by one, hand-help each pax down onto the tarmac. Then, as a group, walk over to a jetway and walk up the stairs. Open the door and walk inside. If none of those jetway-stair doors open, the pax can pretend that they are all oversized baggage and I’m… Read more »
Oliver
Guest

@Matthew Gulinom — fines are also a great way to incentivise companies to come up with proper procedures to avoid the problems that trigger them. And if they don’t, at least the people who got to suffer all night get compensated accordingly.

Kendra
Guest
If everyone had known that they would be stuck on the plane until 4:30, I think people would have jumped out on their own. But I think we have all been in situations that we think will be resolved very soon, only to have the issue drag on and on and turn into an entirely different beast. By then, you just know it will be resolved “any minute”, so you keep waiting it out. If we all knew from the beginning- how it would turn out in the end- we would do things differently (as far as passengers and maybe… Read more »
A
Guest
Full disclousure, I live in Minneapolis. One thing I didn’t think about prior. This was a late flight on a weekend. Given that, I’ll assume that over 50% of the passengers live in the MSP area and probably are familiar with the distance between RST and MSP. I’ve driven that highway several times (sometimes in heavy rain) and know full well it can be driven in under two hours airport to airport. Wash outs and flash flooding – complete BS. Couple years ago Rochester got 10+ inches of rain in a weekend and highway 52 was fine. Knowing that, I’m… Read more »
Vidiot
Guest
Kendra, You keep mentioning worrying that the plane was going to run out of fuel. Fuel’s a concern, but know that even while flights are diverted or are in holding patterns, they have plenty of fuel. Typically, a plane will have enough fuel for the flight, plus enough fuel for time to fly to an alternate airport and land, plus extra reserves. The captain always has ultimate responsibility for the safety of the flight, and you know that s/he wants to land safely just as much as any passenger. When a flight is in a holding pattern, a pilot can… Read more »