The Obama administration has opened an investigation into whether any laws were violated last week when 47 passengers were stranded overnight on an airport tarmac in Rochester, Minn.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the department's general counsel is conducting the investigation. DOT and Federal Aviation Administration lawyers are combing through aviation and consumer protection regulations looking for possible violations.
"While we don't yet have all the facts, this incident as reported is very troubling," LaHood said in a statement. "We are investigating the incident and will do whatever we can to make sure passengers are not subjected to such situations in the future."
The department has sent Continental Airlines a letter asking for details on Continental Express Flight 2816, which left Houston at 9:23 p.m. Friday but didn't arrive at its destination in Minneapolis until after 11 a.m. Saturday.
In between, the small airliner spent nearly seven hours sitting on the tarmac in Rochester, where it had been diverted because of thunderstorms, before passengers were allowed to go inside an airport terminal. Two and a half hours after disembarking, passengers reboarded the same plane and were flown to Minneapolis.
"Reasonable people are outraged at the idea of being stuck on a small plane for seven hours," LaHood wrote in a column posted online. "Flyers and those who are considering flying want to know that should a delay occur, they will be treated respectfully."
DOT officials want to know who was responsible for the well-being of the passengers - Continental or ExpressJet, the regional air carrier that operated the flight for Continental - and why the flight remained on the ground as long as it did, LaHood said.
Officials also want to know what procedures the two airlines have in place for deplaning of passengers on diverted flights if airport security personnel aren't present.
While LaHood described the letter to Continental in his column, DOT spokesman Bill Mosley declined to release a copy. He said it is the department's policy not to release letters that are part of an ongoing investigation.
Continental spokeswoman Julie King said the airline has received the letter and is cooperating with DOT's investigation. She said the Houston-based air carrier adopted a policy earlier this year that no passenger should be subjected to a tarmac delay of three hours or more without being offered an opportunity to get off the aircraft provided that can be done safely.
A spokeswoman for ExpressJet, also based in Houston, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Legislation pending in the Senate to authorize FAA programs includes a provision that would require airlines to return passengers to the gate after a three-hour tarmac delay.
The provision gives the flight's captain the power to extend the tarmac wait by a half-hour if he has reason to believe takeoff clearance is likely to come soon.
The Obama administration hasn't taken a position on the provision.
The provision is opposed by the Air Transport Association, which represents most major air carriers. The association has said a hard and fast timeframe for returning to the gate could have unintended consequences for customers, including the likelihood of more cancellations and inconvenience.
The provision is supported by passenger rights advocates, who have complained that passengers are frequently denied water, food and functioning restrooms during the strandings.
Kate Hanni, the founder of FlyersRights.org, said Continental and ExpressJet officials have misstated the circumstances of the incident and inaccurately described federal regulations. She said the airlines showed a "callous disregard" for the welfare of their passengers.
Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, the chief sponsors of the provision, sent colleagues a letter Tuesday seeking support for the provision.
"Congress has a responsibility to the American people to ensure there is some level of accountability, some minimum standard in place," Snowe said in a statement.
Attempts in the 1990s to pass legislation to address tarmac strandings were unsuccessful.
The issue resurfaced in early 2007 after several high-profile incidents, including one in which people were stuck for nearly 10 hours on a JetBlue flight in an ice storm at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The Bush administration responded by forming a task force to recommend regulations to protect passengers from lengthy strandings. The report issued last November by the industry-dominated task force did not include a firm limit on the number of hours passengers can be kept waiting on tarmacs without the opportunity to return to a gate.
Based on that report, Mary Peters, the transportation secretary under President George W. Bush, proposed a regulation requiring airlines and airports to have contingency plans for extended tarmac delays.
LaHood said in his column that DOT is continuing to examine that proposal.