Today's examination topic has been provided by the Transportation Department's enforcement office. For those who have not read the material, here is a summary of the story.

Shortly after midnight on Aug. 8, Continental Express Flight 2816, operated by ExpressJet, encountered bad weather between Houston and Minneapolis and was diverted to Rochester, Minn. The fully loaded, 50-passenger regional jet did not pull up to a gate because the terminal was closed. As Rochester is an offline station for Continental and ExpressJet, neither carrier had any personnel on hand to service the aircraft or assist passengers.

The only people there were employees of Mesaba, a regional partner of Northwest (i.e., Delta). They declined to open the terminal, incorrectly believing that Transportation Security Administration personnel needed to be there.

After a night of numerous phone calls and messages between Mesaba, ExpressJet and Continental, the passengers were finally admitted into the terminal at 6:05 a.m. Later that morning, they reboarded and were flown to Minneapolis.

Just before Thanksgiving, the DOT cited all three carriers for unfair and deceptive practices and extracted a total of $175,000 in penalties from them in a negotiated settlement -- the first of its kind for a tarmac delay.

Suggested essay topics:

• The DOT enforcement office acted under existing law, at the express direction of the secretary of transportation. To what extent does this suggest that the industry does not need new legislation from Congress to address tarmac delays, but merely a secretary who reads the newspapers?

• Continental admitted in its defense that it did not live up to its published Customer First commitments, but it said these are voluntary service guidelines that are not enforceable by the government. Does this suggest that the DOT needs to order the airlines to incorporate these service guidelines into their contracts of carriage? Consider in your answer what might happen if airlines begin to revise their customer commitments.

• ExpressJet stated in its defense that it repeatedly tried to gain access to the terminal for the passengers, while simultaneously keeping the aircraft refueled and ready to resume its flight should the weather improve. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of pursuing these strategies simultaneously.

• Mesaba stated in its defense that it cannot be held accountable for "unfair and deceptive practices ... in air transportation" (the charge levied against it) because it was not engaged in air transportation but merely baby-sitting an empty terminal. It said the providers of air transportation were Continental and ExpressJet, and any fault is theirs alone. The DOT said this defense didn't pass the laugh test. Agree or disagree?

• All three airlines strongly protested the precedent-setting enforcement action, stating that the DOT was on faulty legal ground, yet all three settled rather than air their arguments in a hearing before an administrative law judge. Does this suggest that the airlines secretly welcomed the move because it might stall congressional action? Could airline companies actually be that devious?

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