WASHINGTON – The pilot of an airliner stranded overnight on an airport tarmac in Minnesota pleaded unsuccessfully for her 47 passengers to be allowed to get off and go inside a terminal. "We just need to work out some way to get them off ... We can't keep them here any longer," she said.
The Transportation Department on Friday released recordings of the repeated appeals by the pilot and her airline's dispatchers earlier this month while passengers were kept waiting for about six hours in the cramped plane amid crying babies and a smelly toilet before they were allowed to deplane.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said a preliminary investigation by his department found that ExpressJet, the regional carrier which operated Continental Express Flight 2816 for Continental Airlines, wasn't at fault in the tarmac stranding.
Instead, blame for the incident, which has revived calls for greater consumer protections for airline passengers, belongs with Mesaba Airlines, whose representative incorrectly told ExpressJet that the passengers couldn't be allowed inside the terminal because Transportation Security Administration personnel had left for the day, LaHood said.
Actually, security regulations allow for deplaning passengers to be kept in a separate "sterile" area until they are ready to board, he said.
"We have determined that the Express Jet crew was not at fault. In fact, the flight crew repeatedly tried to get permission to deplane the passengers at the airport or obtain a bus for them," LaHood said Friday in a statement.
"There was a complete lack of common sense here," the secretary said. "It's no wonder the flying public is so angry and frustrated."
Mesaba was the only airline with staff still at the Rochester, Minn., airport that Friday night.
The plane left Houston at 9:23 p.m. local time on Aug. 7, but was diverted by thunderstorms to Rochester. Passengers were kept waiting on the tarmac only 50 yards from a terminal. In the morning, they were allowed to deplane. They spent about 2 1/2 hours inside the terminal before reboarding the same plane. They arrived in Minneapolis, their destination, at 9:15 a.m. CDT.
Mesaba is a subsidiary of Northwest Airlines, which merged with Delta Air Lines of Atlanta.
"Delta is working with Mesaba to conduct an internal investigation, continue our full cooperation with the DOT and share all the facts with Continental," Delta CEO Richard Anderson said in a statement.
Continental Chairman and CEO Larry Kellner said he was gratified the Transportation Department recognized the ExpressJet crew's efforts to resolve the situation and was frustrated at their failure to get assistance. Continental Airlines is headquartered in Houston.
The recordings show the captain explaining the situation to an ExpressJet dispatcher, and dispatchers trying to persuade Mesaba officials to allow passengers inside. Passengers from an earlier flight diverted to Rochester had been allowed to deplane and were taken by bus to Minneapolis, about 85 miles away.
However, Mesaba officials said there were no more buses available.
"I can't get her a bus, I can't do anything," said a Mesaba representative.
"You can't do anything for her? OK," asked the ExpressJet dispatcher.
"Because she was saying nobody was letting her off the airplane, letting the people off the airplane and all that," the dispatcher continued.
"We can't — I mean we were just able to let these guys off. We can't get them a bus. If I can't secure them a bus, I can't have them in a closed airport," the Mesaba representative replied.
In another conversation that began at 4:44 a.m. after the terminal had reopened, a Mesaba manager told an ExpressJet dispatcher that the passengers couldn't deplane because there was no jetbridge available and it was raining.
"I'm trying to find a spot to park them. They're going to have to walk through the rain then once they get off," the manager said.
At 5 a.m., the flight got clearance to takeoff again. But by then, its crew had worked more than the legal limit of hours. Another crew had to be flown in.
It wasn't until 6 a.m. that passengers were allowed to enter the terminal.
Link Christin, who was on the flight, said the incident was a clear example of why more safeguards are necessary for passengers.
"To me, the critical issue is not who's to blame, but to figure out what happened and how it could be prevented in the future," said Christin, a lecturer at William Mitchell College of Law.
More than a week afterward, Christin said he's started to think about "the fact that so many variables were at play with 47, 48 people, two babies, and the variety of potential catastrophes that could have happened."
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant in Minneapolis contributed to this report.