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. Listen Featured Audio

  • Jim!!!

    I don’t understand why people can be so complacent. This morning at my employer there was a fire drill. When we got the all-clear, a long line of people were filing slowly into the building through one of a pair of double doors. I thought to myself, “is the other door locked?”. When I got to it I pulled it open. Why? Do you like waiting in line?

  • Kristin

    Outliers a book by Malcom Gladwell talks about the relationships between controllers and pilots – it tells a great deal about how people deal with perceived authority.

    The passivity of this pilot is the problem. She needed to demand to get the people off the plane.

  • Passing the buck – how pathetic.

    Purchasing an airline ticket does not mean I have agreed to imprisonment due to complacency.

    I am the guy who will blow the door and leave. Let ’em arrest me. I’d be happy to go to trial.

  • Bob Collins

    We were just talking about that in the newsroom a little while ago when it was pointed out that it would be a felony.

    “I’ll take my chances with any jury in the country,” I said. Even one in California.

  • Mike R

    Part of the problem is that in such a situation, passengers have no way of knowing whether they are going to be stuck there 6 hours or 15 minutes. I’m sure the crew was telling them “we’ll be leaving momentarily” the entire time.

    However, I don’t know why passengers would continue to believe that line after several hours in horrible conditions.

    Has there ever actually been a case of passengers opening the doors and leaving in one of these “stranded on the tarmac” situations?

  • ryan

    Correction. According to the conversation, the pilot had fuel. At least enough to get them out and to some other place away from the storms. (9:10)

  • Bob Collins

    I heard that, of course, but it’s unclear whether she was saying they had enough fuel *on board* or they had *access* to fuel.

    I tend to believe the latter, because she didn’t really know what route they’d *built* for her, so she wouldn’t have been able to calculate the fuel requirements. And she’d never have taken off without knowing exactly where they’re going and exactly what route they were going to take to get there.

    Also, I think it’s important to note, those calculations are primarily done by the dispatchers, not first by the pilots.

    The notation about the time to take on fuel comes, by the way from ExpressJet, and answers the question why they didn’t just take off when the Houston official was saying there was no longer a storm at MSP and it hadn’t hit RST yet.

    BTW, the biggest mystery in this whole affair is why just a single passenger is the one being quoted with what was going on in the cabin. In an age of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, YouTube, instant access to mainstream media, 46 other people went silent. That’s pretty odd.

  • kennedy

    Our concern for Homeland Security resulted in myriad regulations for air travel. I think we follow those rules both out of concern for our own safety and as a way of honoring those who died at the World Trade Center.

  • Markv

    @ kennedy

    Please explain how sitting in those conditions for 6 hours due to the apathy and incompetence of others honors anyone?

    If people tried to excuse that in honor of my life or my family I would be deeply insulted.

  • Paul Trotter

    I think I would have used my cell phone to call the police and say I was being held hostage.

  • penelope

    I had a similar experience on JetBlue May 2008, there was an electric storm at Kennedy and over 100 planes were backed up unable to take off, we spent the entire day (I think it was something like 7 hrs) on the plane for what would’ve been a 45 min flight to upstate NY!!!!!!! Finally they deplaned us at night and everyone scrambled to get reservations on next days flights, and then spent the night stretched out over our belongings in their terminal…a nightmare…..

    the stews were very humane, lending their cellphones and doling out their famous chips and whatever, but it was ghastly..I was one of the lucky few who did manage to get a seat for next day’s flight…w e received a coupon for compensation, for a small amt…to be applied to a future flight!

  • kennedy


    The conversation seemed to be centering on why we follow rules. There was a suggestion that the passengers should have opened the hatch and hopped out on the tarmac. I was commenting on why the passengers seemed to be relatively complacent for several hours.

    The failure of the flight and ground crews to resolve the situation in a timely manner is inexcusable.

  • Gary

    The comments that the pilot was not “aggressive” enough in getting the passengers off the plane contribute to the lack of understanding of the responsibility the pilot has to his/her passengers. The pilot is held totally responsible for the safety of the passengers not their inconvienence. As a company representitive, the pilot tried to get the passengers off the plane to ease their discomfort but she could not risk their safely by using the planes slide to remove the passengers in a non-emergency situation and have them on the tarmac as she would still be responsible for them until they were safely in the terminal. She was totally dependent on getting ground crews to provide a jetway or ladder and unlock the terminal to gain access. It appears as if the Mesaba ground personel did not understand the TSA rules and guidelines as they are required to.

  • Bob Collins


    As a certificated pilot, I can assure you I don’t lack understanding about rules regarding pilots. In fact, if you watch the presentation above, you will see that I specifically referred to the “safety” of the passengers in invoking the FAR that gives the pilot discretion and noted that the inconvenience she described above, in fact, did not involve “inconvenience” but did involve “safety” of the passengers. When she described the situation, she WAS citing a safety situation.

    To your point, yes, she most certainly could have used an emergency exit if she so chose. We can disagree — or perhaps not — on the merits of such a choice, but she had the option.Yes, she still would have been responsible for the passengers until they were in the terminal, but that comes with the job and that’s also completely clear i the FAR. She most certainly would’ve had some explaining to do (which is also indicated in the FAR under which she could’ve taken action *if she so chose.*)

    It’s also important to note that while she was able to take on fuel — indicating there were ground service personnel willing and able to perform work on the plane — there’s no indication she ever asked them to move stairs (as opposed to a jetway) into a location to alleviate the safety situation *she* had described to Houston. In fact, later in the conversations, the Mesaba manager notes that they were looking for a jetway because it was raining — as if by then the people inside the plane would be concerned they’d get wet.

    So when the conversation centers around “I don’t know what else to do” but sit, that’s simply not true. And when a dispatcher/coordinator starts saying “maybe YOU — the pilot — can talk to these people or those people, at a time when the airport manager had still not been called, at a time when the operations center for the other airlines had still not been called, at a time where nobody at ExpressJet had said to the Mesaba person, “let me speak to your supervisor, well, that’s simply a massive application of apparent incompetence.

    That’s not to meant to lay blame at the feet of the pilot. But that’s not to absolve her, either. She was put in a pretty crappy spot and she was left to twist in the wind by just about everyone else. I’m not unsympathetic to that situation. But, from the tapes that ExpressJet released, she was not at all aggressive — or assertive — in making clear to the people she was communicating with what THEY needed to do to bring about a successful and safe completion of the flight. THAT’S what a pilot is supposed to do. You can’t just say “that’s ridiculous” and wait for the next phone call. If the people in Houston weren’t getting it, she had a responsibility to direct them, rather than be directed.

    Sully Sullenberger was able to use his wits to get a plane full of people to safely land in the Hudson River. Al Haines (Sioux City) kept a few hundred people alive by flying an airplane in a way it’s never been flown before. They evaluated ALL of their options and chose the best way to a safe conclusion of the flight.

    Sometimes you just have to lead in spite of everything and everybody that conspires against you.

    The point at which she had delegated control of the situation, she was no longer in control of her flight or the safety of the people on it. THAT’S not good piloting.

  • Concerned Traveler

    My thoughts are as with any job, sometimes you are in a now win situation. I am sure had she been more aggressive but in the end someone who is over her did not like the choices she made she may of lost her job. You talk about Sully Sullenberger and the great job he had done. However, had he landed the plane and only a few people survived including himself or only himself he would of been possibly chastised for not following the orders that he was given to divert to another airport. Don’t get me wrong what he did was awesome and he truly was aggressive and did an amazing act, but when he was executing that act he had no gaurantee that anyone was going to live including himself. My overall thoughts are the pilot is there to fly the plane the airport is there to provide for the passengers when on the ground. Period.

  • Bob Collins

    But that’s the point: NOBODY over her head made decisions. And, technically, in matters of flight safety, there is nobody over her head. Pilots are responsible from the moment they embark to the moment they disembark.

  • Rod N

    The passengers were kidnapped and subjected to false imprisonment.

    There need to be both civil and criminal prosecutions. Only court action will impose accountability on criminals, either people or corporations.

  • Tony

    Despite what’s noted on the AV slideshow, there are no emergency slides on Embraer RJs. There are instead two options for egress; a leap from a door with a threshold five feet above the ramp, or a butt-slide off of a flap trailing edge that is about six feet off of the ramp when not extended (it would be extended in a PIC-directed evacuation, but it’s still a pretty good drop). Passenger and/or crew injuries are likely in such an evacuation–it is not a “safe” procedure, except when compared to burning alive. The wet weather would have compounded the likelihood of injury.

    To sit in an inconvenient, uncomfortable, smelly, disgusting aircraft may seem to many to be a less appealing option than taking your chances with an evacuation, but if one little old person had broken their ankle on the evac, that captain would have officially been presiding over an accident, something no PIC wants or desires.

    As the Federal judge ruled in the American Airlines case (the flight stranded in Austin, TX for nine hours back in 2006), you are not guaranteed a stress-free trip. The captain’s primary responsibility begins and ends with your physical well-being, with your psychological and mental well being a distant second (or third, or more). The pilots and the rest of the flight crew are there to keep you ALIVE AND UNINJURED. Everything after that is gravy.

  • Bob Collins

    Tony, you’ve presumably listened to the tapes. Did you hear anybody demand anything during that entire time?

    Five feet isn’t that far once you get one person on the ground (hold bottom of door frame, swing down while doing a chinup) Then help others down. But maybe the flight was mostly senior cits.

    OTOH, someone reported that Signature is a 24-hour operation there. Perhaps they could have been contacted.

    Of course, the ultimate option was the simplest one of all: Cancel the flight. Although I’d still put that behind “demand action rather than passively accept what other people not doing their job are saying.”

    No, nobody gets a get-out-jail free card on this mess.

    How long have you flown for XJT? Ever encounter anything like this before?

  • Tony

    I actually fly for a private firm operating the Embraer Legacy, an essentially identical aircraft. I did, however, fly for a Part 121 carrier for nearly 21 years, though never operating an Embraer type in that capacity.

    When relatively isolated events such as this occur, they do expose weaknesses in the customer service structure of airlines; however, the rhetoric surrounding what the captain should have done or should not have done has only one reasonable conclusion–she did what in her judgment was the safest thing, and everyone survived uninjured. She did her job.

  • Bob Collins

    How do you think dispatch and the Hub coordinator did?