Answers sought on Minn. flight delay

On the heels of a Transportation Department request, lawmakers are seeking to determine why passengers on a Continental Airlines regional flight on Friday were left on the plane while it sat on the tarmac for several hours overnight.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., sent a letter on Tuesday to FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt asking for answers. "I hope you will share my assessment that the conditions experienced by these passengers were unacceptable and warrant a swift response," she said.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has also contacted FAA and the Transportation Department, according to a spokeswoman.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has asked the department's general counsel to look into whether Continental or its partner ExpressJet Airlines violated any laws.

LaHood sent a letter to Continental asking for information regarding the incident, in which a Continental regional flight from Houston operated by ExpressJet sat on the tarmac with 47 passengers at Rochester (Minn.) International Airport for hours after it was diverted from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. News reports indicate the wait on the plane was at least six hours, after a delay of a couple hours before the plane had initially left Houston.

"What does it mean that an article from over the weekend on a nightmare flight delay is yesterday's 'Most Viewed' news item in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune?" LaHood wrote on his blog Tuesday. "I think it means that reasonable people are outraged at the idea of being stuck on a small plane for seven hours."

LaHood is asking Continental to explain why the flight was diverted -- ExpressJet has blamed thunderstorms -- and which carrier's contingency plan was implemented during the delay. He is also asking whether either carrier had procedures in place at Rochester regarding deplaning of passengers; why the flight was forced to stay on the ground for that long; and how passengers were treated during the delay and once they were inside the airport terminal. ExpressJet has said the passengers stayed on board because Transportation Security Administration screeners had gone home for the night and passengers would not have been able to re-board.

LaHood said the information from Continental will be used to help write a departmental rule requiring airlines to take certain action to deal with lengthy tarmac delays, including ensuring basic passenger needs.

The incident has rallied those seeking congressional approval of a passenger bill of rights. Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, sent a Dear Colleague on Tuesday to gather support for a bill allowing passengers to deplane after every three hours on the ground and requiring airlines to provide food, water and adequate restrooms. It would also mandate that airports and airlines develop contingency plans for delayed flights, which the Transportation Department would review and approve. It would be able to fine air carriers and airports that do not submit or comply with those plans.

The Boxer-Snowe measure was included in a FAA reauthorization bill that the Senate Commerce Committee approved in July, but the senators say they will push for a stand-alone bill if the broader committee bill stalls.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Costello, D-Ill., on Wednesday said he has talked to FAA officials who are investigating. "It is another example of why the Senate needs to move a FAA reauthorization bill" that includes a mandatory passenger bill of rights, he said. "I think we can get a bill out in a relatively short time and get it to the president's desk in the fall."

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