What’s your time worth to you? If you’re stuck in rush-hour freeway traffic, congestion researchers will value your delay at less than $20 an hour. If you’re cooped up in a smelly airplane sitting out a near-6-hour flight delay on the Rochester tarmac, the federal government and three airlines have agreed to a rate of $647 an hour.
That’s how the $175,000 in civil penalties against Continental Airlines, ExpressJet Holdings and Mesaba Airlines works out for each hour lost by the 47 passengers on Continental Express Flight 2816 last Aug. 8. The sanctions were a U.S. first to discourage “unfair and deceptive airline practices” causing unreasonable delays and discomfort for air travelers.
Flight 2816 from Houston, operated by ExpressJet for Continental, was diverted to Rochester from its scheduled destination at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport because of bad weather. Mesaba, the only airline staffing the Rochester airport, took charge of ground handling and badly bollixed it. From 12:30 a.m. until 6:15 a.m., Mesaba repeatedly denied the pilot’s requests to allow the passengers into the terminal. Federal officials said a Mesaba agent misinterpreted transportation security rules to bar relief for the travelers, while ExpressJet and Continental failed to follow their own procedures for long delays.
All three airlines agreed to the penalties without admitting wrongdoing. In fact, they all pointed fingers of blame at each other. But Mesaba got the biggest fine, $75,000, while Continental and ExpressJet were assessed $50,000 each. The consent orders allow each airline to direct half of the penalty toward new training and procedures to avert repeats of the Rochester fiasco.
At 9:30 a.m., the passengers eventually re-boarded the plane – still lacking an operating restroom – and arrived at MSP at 11 a.m, after a total delay of more than 11 hours. They were refunded their fares and offered additional compensation by Continental. My guess is that, given a choice, they would have preferred a prompt bus ride to the Twin Cities.