Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood asked the Department of Transportation's general counsel to look into whether Continental Airlines or regional partner ExpressJet violated any laws in connection with the lengthy tarmac delay on a Houston-Minneapolis flight over the weekend.
Passengers were stuck in a crowded, cramped, small plane for seven hours, LaHood acknowledged.
“While we don’t yet have all the facts, this incident as reported is very troubling,” LaHood said. “We are investigating the incident and will do whatever we can to make sure passengers are not subjected to such situations in the future.”
Forty-seven passengers were confined to the regional jet at the airport in Rochester, Minn., overnight Friday. ExpressJet was operating the Continental Express flight.
The flight left Houston at about 9:30 p.m. and was scheduled to arrive in Minneapolis by midnight. But the flight was diverted to Rochester because of thunderstorms.
ExpressJet spokeswoman Kristy Nicholas said that when the plane arrived in Rochester, the flight crew had reached maximum work hours, so another crew had to be flown in, the Associated Press reported. Nicholas said allowing passengers into the terminal wasn't possible because security screeners had gone home for the day.
At daybreak, passengers were allowed in the terminal, only to board the same plane for the flight to Minneapolis.
Continental has since offered apologies and refunds to the 47 passengers.
Tarmac delays have been a hot-button issue. Bills are making their way through Congress that would require airlines and airports to be much more accommodating for passengers.
There were 278 flights in June with tarmac times of three hours or more. The three-hour tarmac times consisted of 172 delayed taxi-outs, 40 cancelled flights, 42 flights with multiple gate departures, 23 diverted flights and one delayed taxi-in. There were two flights in June with tarmac times of five hours or more.
The tally of three-hour tarmac delays for June was one of the worst monthly tallies over the past 14 years, according to an analysis of DOT data by FlyersRights.org, a consumer advocacy group.