Mesaba faulted in stranding of ExpressJet passengers

The U.S. Department of Transportation today said it wasn’t the fault of the crew of that ExpressJet flight that sat on the ramp in Rochester for hours a couple of weeks ago. It was the fault of a crew from Mesaba Airlines.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, writing on his blog today, said his preliminary investigation has found:

  • *** The local representative of Mesaba Airlines–the only carrier in a position to help the stranded plane–improperly refused the requests of the ExpressJet captain to let her passengers off the plane, telling the captain that the airport was closed to passengers for security reasons.

    This is what led to the nightmare for those stuck on the plane.

    The Mesaba rep said this apparently because there was no one from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) available to screen passengers. But, 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 secure area.

    *** While the crew of the Continental Express flight did what they could to assist passengers, more senior personnel within Continental or ExpressJet should have become involved in an effort to obtain permission to take the passengers off the plane.

The plane left Houston at 9:23 p.m. on August 11, but was diverted by thunderstorms to Rochester. Passengers were kept for about six hours waiting inside the cramped plane amid wailing babies and a smelly toilet even though they were only 50 yards from a terminal, the Associated Press reported.

The Associated Press, meanwhile, has obtained recordings of the ExpressJet’s flight crew conversation with its corporate headquarters. ExpressJet has also provided this timeline of the flight.

Here’s the audio with some annotations I’ve made:

(h/t: Brian Bakst, AP)

Update 2:39 p.m. – Delta CEO Richard Anderson’s reaction (Delta owns Mesaba)

“Because customer service is so important to our industry, I have personally reached out to Continental’s chairman and CEO to ensure we fully understand the facts of this unfortunate incident. Delta is working with Mesaba to conduct an internal investigation, continue our full cooperation with the DOT and share all the facts with Continental.”

Update 2:51 p.m. – Mesaba Airlines Chief Executive Officer John Spanjers’ statement:

“Mesaba respectfully disagrees with the DOT’s preliminary findings as they are incongruent with our initial internal review of the incident. Because Continental Express Flight 2816 diverted to an airport where they have no ground handling service, Mesaba offered assistance as a courtesy during this delay. While the investigation is ongoing, Mesaba is fully cooperating with the Department of Transportation and looks forward to the final report.”

Update 2:57 p.m. – Transportation Security Administration (TSA) isn’t talking, but noted this posting on its Web site:

Airlines, not TSA, make the decision on whether or not to deplane passengers if there is a delay or diversion. TSA does not prohibit airlines deplaning passengers and re-boarding without screening as long as they don’t exit past the checkpoint and leave the secure area, regardless of whether or not TSA officers are conducting screening operations.

In addition, TSA has the ability to recall security officers and resume screening passengers after hours at the request of an airline or airport.

It’s important to remember, this is one side of the story.

Update 7:04 p.m. Here’s my interview on MPR’s All Things Considered:

  1. Audio not found