Officials from the US Department of Transportation (DOT) have levied a $100,000 civil penalty against ExpressJet and partner Continental Airlines for a highly-publicised six-hour tarmac delay on 8 August.

In addition DOT fined the ground handler -- Delta subsidiary Mesaba Airlines -- at Rochester International Airport in Minnesota $75,000 for its role in the incident.

The fines stem from an ExpressJet Embraer ERJ-145 flight operating as Continental Express from Houston to Minneapolis that was diverted to Rochester due to unfavourable weather.

DOT on 21 August initially cleared ExpressJet of blame in the incident, declaring the aircraft crew was not at fault. At that time DOT explained the crew repeatedly attempted to get permission to deplane the passengers or secure a bus for the customers.

However, at that time DOT did state that more senior Continental or ExpressJet representatives should have become more involved in efforts to receive permission to deplane the passengers.

DOT today said the enforcement actions involve consent orders that reflect a settlement by the carriers of violations alleged by the agency's Aviation Enforcement Office.

The agency also explains the fines are the first enforcement orders punishing carriers for extended tarmac delays, and the first instance that a carrier acting as a ground handler for another airline has been punished for failing to properly aid passengers in leaving an aircraft during an extended tarmac delay.

Both Continental and ExpressJet in separate orders were found to have violated the prohibition against unfair and deceptive practices since ExpressJet failed to carry out a provision of Continental's customer service commitment that requires if a ground delay approaches three hours the operations centre will determine if departure is expected within a reasonable time, and if not the carrier will take action as soon as possible to deplane passengers.

The agency also determined that ExpressJet failed to take timely actions required by its own procedures, which include notifying its own senior officials and providing appropriate Continental officials with notice of the delay.

"Continental was found to have engaged in an unfair and deceptive practice since, as the carrier marketing the flight 2816, Continental is ultimately responsible to its passengers on that flight," says DOT.

DOT also concluded that Mesaba engaged in an unfair and deceptive practice when it provided inaccurate information to ExpressJet about deplaning passengers from the aircraft.

"I hope that this sends a signal to the rest of the airline industry that we expect airlines to respect the rights of air travelers," says DOT Secretary Ray LaHood. "We will also use what we have learned from this investigation to strengthen protections for airline passengers subjected to long tarmac delays."

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news