DOT Steps In Where Congress Wimps Out

The Department of Transportation has fined three airlines for their roles in the stranding of passengers overnight aboard a regional jet at the Rochester, Minn., airport, the Associated Press reports.

This signals the DOT’s willingness to use its existing regulations to address these outrageous cases of passengers being forced to sit aboard planes for hours in unacceptable conditions. Meanwhile, Congress dithers, unable to pass an air passenger bill of rights, apparently seeking some kind of unnecessary compromise between basic human decency and corporate intransigence.

ExpressJet operated the Aug. 8 flight for Continental Airlines, and the DOT levied a combined fine of $100,000 against both of them. It also fined Mesaba Airlines $75,000 because a Mesaba employee refused to open the terminal for the stranded passengers.

The flight, bound for Minneapolis from Houston, was diverted to Rochester by bad weather. While passengers on a diverted Northwest flight were allowed into the terminal and bused to Minneapolis, the 47 ExpressJet passengers sat in the cramped commuter jet for nearly six hours.

In the absence of passenger rights legislation, the DOT based its fines on the premise that the airlines “violated the law that prohibits unfair and deceptive practices in air transportation.” Works for me. What’s important here is that the airlines suffer some adverse consequences when this happens, which would be motivation to take this issue seriously and deal with it effectively.

The DOT said in a press release that this is the first time it has punished airlines for a tarmac delay and the first time a “carrier acting as a ground handler for another airline” has been punished for failing to help.

“I hope that this sends a signal to the rest of the airline industry that we expect airlines to respect the rights of air travelers,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in the press release. I’m good with that.

But as George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.com points out to MSNBC, the airports need to be involved in this effort, as well. Everybody involved needs to understand that when people are held against their will during an extended delay in public transit, it’s not a bureaucratic problem. It’s an emergency.

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