U.S. News

U.S. airlines fined for stranding travelers on plane

A Continental Airlines airplane is refueled at its gate at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey, March 29, 2009. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government on Tuesday imposed its first-ever punishment against airlines for stranding passengers aboard aircraft, fining three carriers $175,000 for a six-hour ordeal in Minnesota.

Continental Airlines and its ExpressJet Airlines affiliate were fined $100,000, while Mesaba Airlines, a unit of Delta Air Lines, was fined $75,000, the Transportation Department said.

Continental, ExpressJet and Mesaba all reached settlements with the government’s Aviation Enforcement Office.

The action served as a sharp reminder to carriers about service just as the busy Thanksgiving Day travel period gets under way.

Regulators found all three airlines violated a law prohibiting unfair and deceptive practices for their roles in the August 8 incident in Rochester, Minnesota.

Forty-seven passengers were stranded overnight aboard a Continental Express plane en route from Houston to Minneapolis that diverted to Rochester due to bad weather.

ExpressJet operated Flight 2816 for Continental while Mesaba was the only airline staffing the Rochester airport at the time. Mesaba refused to let passengers exit the plane and enter the terminal because there were no federal security personnel on duty at the time.

Government officials concluded that passengers could have entered the terminal so long as they remained in the secure area.

Reporting by John Crawley; editing by John Wallace