expressjetOh no, they’ve done it again.

Passengers on ExpressJet Airlines flight 2816 from Houston to Minneapolis spent the night trapped inside a small airplane parked at the Rochester, Minn., airport, “complete with crying babies and the aroma of over-used toilets,” according to reports. After being released, they were reportedly “quarantined” at the airport terminal until they re-boarded the aircraft.

If this doesn’t give a boost to the proponents of a three-hour tarmac delay rule, nothing will. But first, let’s hear from one of the passengers on the flight.

This was forwarded to me from reader N. Erole late yesterday. It’s a first-hand account from one of the passengers, who begins his story, “Now I know what it’s like to be in hell.”

Being stuck on that plane for 9 1/2 hours — 7 hours on the ground — was no picnic. The captain was not communicating with us at all, and what she did tell us seemed like stalling. Shouldn’t we get some kind of compensation out of this mess or is this acceptable?

Yes, absolutely. ExpressJet — which has something of a reputation for tarmac delays — should compensate its passengers for this unfortunate experience.

While they’re at it, how about a few answers?

Who’s in charge here? Continental Airlines or ExpressJet? Many passengers on the flight had booked their tickets through Continental. According to one passenger, “My boarding pass has a huge headline saying Continental. The flight attendant said, ‘Thank you for flying Continental.’ The comment cards we were given said Continental. Continental is totally in charge, whether by ownership or agency.” So why is Continental deferring to ExpressJet instead of taking responsibility for this mess?

Why couldn’t they let the passengers off the plane in Rochester? ExpressJet spokeswoman Kristy Nicholas claimed Rochester International Airport didn’t have security screeners available to check the passengers. But Steve Leqve, the manager of the Rochester International Airport, said that was incorrect. “They wouldn’t have had to go through security. They could have come into the airport,” he said. Erole suggests Leqve’s account is accurate: “Another Northwest plane had also landed at Rochester just before us, they were allowed to exit their plane with their luggage and enter the airport at 3 a.m. We sat till 6:30 a.m., being fed lines about the airport is not open and we cannot go in.”

Where’s the bus? Passengers believed there was a bus that would take them back to the terminal. “There was a bus waiting on the other side of the terminal from us at 5 a.m.,” said the survivor. “This was verified by Rochester tower employees. I asked the pilot if there was a bus and she picked up the intercom and announced to the plane, ‘There is no bus’.” So which is it? Bus or no bus?

Why “quarantine” the customers? Erole notes the torture didn’t end after they got off the plane. “Once we were allowed into the airport, we were quarantined to one space at a gate and not allowed to move freely around the airport. I asked the security guard in charge of us why that was, we all were told to have our IDs and boarding passes with us, and the airport was fully operational at this time. He told me he had no idea, it was what the flight crew had told him to do — right before they went home, because they had no flying hours left,” according to the account. There must have been a good reason for containing the passengers in one area. What it is, we don’t know.

There’s a silver lining to the dark cloud hanging over Continental, ExpressJet, and the dozens of angry passengers who were stuck on the tarmac. Their story will bring awareness to the issue of tarmac delays, which is currently being debated in Congress.

The Senate version of the FAA Reauthorization Bill contains a three-hour limit for flights waiting on the tarmac. The current House bill does not.

The airline industry and its apologists are pushing for a final version of the bill that leaves it up to airlines to determine when to roll back to the gate. They say this “common sense” approach allows them to be flexible and keeps the government out of the airline industry, which is where they say it belongs.

Well, here’s a thought: Maybe we should invite some of the airline lobbyists and their surrogates to spend nine hours on a regional jet with overflowing toilets, surly crewmembers and screaming babies.

That might change things, don’t you think?

Update: Here’s a video that describes the ordeal, along with another eyewitness account.

(4:30 p.m.) TSA has weighed in on the issue too, saying it’s not their fault.

(Photo: caribb/Flickr Creative Commons)