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Not Again! Trapped on the Tarmac for Nine Hours

August 10, 2009 | Posted in: Airline News,Ask Rick,Delays,Passengers,Weather

Somebody messed up.

On Friday night, a Continental flight (operated by ExpressJet) from Houston to Minneapolis-St. Paul was supposed to get to the Twin Cities a little after midnight. But there were storms in the area, and the flight was diverted to Rochester, Minnesota.

And they didn’t let anyone off the plane – for the next nine hours!

One of the 47 passengers described the 50-seater plane as a “sardine can”- complete with crying babies, and a single restroom – that started to smell.

Between the two airlines, the explanations for this grim incident are somewhat murky – and amusing, too — if you weren’t on the plane. Keep reading, to see the “explanations”…

According to news reports about this incident, the crew couldn’t just wait out the storm for an hour or two and take off again, because they had reached their maximum work hours and had to be replaced – and replacements had to be flown in.

Okay, so why not let the passengers into the airport? Well, all the TSA screeners had gone home for the night.

Then why not at least let the passengers into the gate area so they could at least sleep on some seats, and not have to be rescreened? ExpressJet: “That was not provided as an option by ground services personnel at the airport.”

How about chartering a bus to Minneapolis – which is only about 80 miles away? No response.

The plane eventually took off that morning and landed at about 11am Saturday.

My question: why is this sort of thing still happening?!

9 Responses to “Not Again! Trapped on the Tarmac for Nine Hours”

  1. Elena says:

    Crew members do not enjoy these kinds of situations any more than our passengers do. This is especially true when there are a lot of restless children on board and even more so during a diversion. Usually, planes are diverted to much smaller airports. Diversions are NOT common occurrences, so smaller airports are not always prepared for this type of situation. There’s nothing amusing about the explanations given- they gave you the facts of logistical complications they faced.

    So to best answer your question of why this sort of thing is still happening, I have to ask what you mean by “this sort of thing.” If you are referring to diverting to another airport because of severe weather, then the answer is obvious; for the safety of the 47 passengers on board. The pilots may have been given a holding pattern prior to landing because conditions to land were not safe enough; at that point the pilots are waiting for the conditions to improve for a safe landing or to divert-whichever happens first. Sometimes, the weather is too severe to even bother with a holding pattern and a diversion is the only option. Again…this is for the safety of passengers.

    If you are referring to the crew “timing out” then I’d be glad to explain this concept, as it is often misunderstood. Its not like we as crew members say “ok, my duty is up & I don’t feel like working anymore today” The FAA mandates the maximum hours were are allowed to be on duty. We can get into a LOT of trouble if we don’t adhere to Federal Aviation Regulations. The FAA imposes regulations for SAFETY of not just the crew, but also the passengers, based on research on how duty times and flying times can impact pilot fatigue (sleepiness). If these pilots timed out, chances are they had been on duty since mid-morning that day. Would you have wanted them to wait it out until conditions were safe to fly…after having been flying since mid-morning? Probably NOT. Getting a crew there isn’t always easy, since it is wasn’t a crew base. If you take a look at which airlines that fly into RST (the diversion airport), you’ll notice that Continental does not operate flights to/from RST, so getting a crew positioned (and especially at this hour) is difficult. This is something the airline had no control over.

    If you meant to ask why the passengers weren’t allowed off of the plane for 9 hours? I can’t answer that. It is an unusual circumstance to divert. Nine hours is outstanding (and not in a good way) and unanticipated. This is an airport that handles less than 20 arrivals & departures each day-none of them by Continental. Their last arrival comes in around 10pm, so you can imagine that by the time this flight diverted, the airport was a ghost town. But surely, there were TSA agents and airport police present to patrol the area, and an airport representative could have been notified when the flight was diverted.

    I wasn’t there, and I don’t work for either airline. I’m just trying to shed some light on the logistics involved in deplaning at a diversion airport. I am in no way making an excuse for passengers on the aircraft for more than 3 hours, but I also wasn’t there. I have also experienced first hand how media blows a story out of proportion and twists the facts to make a catchy headline.

    Maybe this diversion will be a lesson to prepare smaller airports and for airlines to better plan a course of action in these types of abnormal situations. As passengers, maybe it can be a lesson to take life as it comes and remember that in air travel- everything is subject to change so be prepared for delays inside the airport and onboard. Bring things to keep your kids busy, bring a book for yourself, bring snacks. And most importantly- don’t take it out on the crew: its not glitter and rainbows for us when things don’t go as planned either.

  2. Alan says:

    Diversion…no problem….Nine hours on a plane…BIG PROBLEM! Explanations by airline—ridiculous. I like the bus idea. Come on Continental (ExpressJet), somebody must have a brain cell. And the security/police at the airport…P-L-E-A-S-E. I might have risked being arrested (and later having charges dropped) by opening the emergency exit and leaving the plane myself (let’s say, hmmm maybe after 4 hours? I thought I heard about a plane to accommodate passengers stuck on airplanes after several hours….obviously these pilots (yes, they are in charge and can make decisions – for the safety of the passengers, and I would say being stuck on a 50-passenger jet for more than 4 hours qualifies as a safety issue). Continental/ExpressJet – you deserve every bit of BAD PUBLICITY you get out of this incident and I hope it makes the national network news tonight.

  3. Jim says:

    Wow, what a great, measured response from Elena. I vote that Rick puts her on the blog roll immediately.

  4. Rick Seaney says:

    I enjoyed your response, but I note you can’t answer my main point either (but then, no one can, it seems) and that is why those passengers had to sit in the airplane for nine hours. I think most of us understand the demands on airlines crews and their work rules, and how diversions are rare, but, surely some one could have come up with a plan to get those people off the airplane. And if there were no plans in place for such an occurence, I have to ask why not?
    By the way, I’ve just updated the post, which you can see at http://rickseaney.com/2009/08/11/update-trapped-on-tarmac-story-gets-even-worse/http://.

  5. JoAnne says:

    A former flight attendant told me the reason that the plane stays on the tarmac is because the crew is paid only when the plane is away from the terminal.

  6. Erika says:

    Wow. A Delta diverted plane landed AFTER the Continental flight, went to go to the gate, passengers got off and onto a chartered bus to Minneapolis. That really makes this situation inexplicable and truly makes Continental and ExpressJet look idiots. Completely unacceptable.

  7. Nancy says:

    Continental sucks! I got trapped last year in Houston after my flight from LAX was delayed and of course my connecting flight left me. The Continental employess were of no help in LA or in Houston. A Continental employee lied to me in LA telling me that they were going to be holding all connecting flights in Houston as I had asked to be rerouted so that I could just get home. I will never fly on this airline again!!! Their service sucks and they absolutely do not give a damn about you after they get your money. My luggage made it back to Columbia before I did. At least the fools didn’t lose it.

  8. Trish says:

    JoAnne – flight attendants are only paid when the plane is in the air, but pilots are paid as long as they are not at the gate (block to block time). At least that is the way it was when I was flying a long time ago. So that would explain why the pilots want to sit on the tarmac instead of going to the gate.

  9. GaLiberal says:

    Before I go off half-cocked and start throwing around words like “ridiculous” and “idiots” and “unacceptable” (like some who have posted here), what are ALL the facts. I have read where Continental has no gate space at the Rochester airport and was trying to get Delta (who does have gate space) to allow them use of the gate. Evidently, Delta needed the gate for it’s own customers – that’s understandable. By FAA rules, you cannot disembark from a plane on a taxiway or ramp area. You have to discharge at a gate. No gate, no getting off the plane. That’s for passenger safety. Who wants to volunteer to get sucked into an engine intake or knocked 50+ yards when a plane passes by while you are walking around? Not me.

    People are reading just a snippet of the overall situation and drawing unsupported conclusions. They need to check the facts first. This sounds bad, but a series of unrelated problems can all align into an overall bad situation. The bigger question is could this have been avoided? What was the one key factor that contributed to this situation? The airline can’t control the weather so that’s not an issue. The airline can’t take gate space from another airline without permission, but Delta needed the gate. The FAA sets the time rules, so that’s outside the airlines control. So what part of this is Continental’s fault? Don’t get me wrong. Something failed here and needs to be corrected. Trapping someone on a plane for THREE hours is an extreme hardship, but in this case there are extenuating conditions.

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