Well, here's an idea. Why don't we extend an airline captain's authority to ensure the welfare of passengers outside the airplane in exceptional circumstances and we'll eliminate the need for politically motivated fines, screeching passenger advocate groups and a whole lot of discomfort.
Last week, the Department of Transportation absolutely slayed a symptom while ignoring a disease, possibly gained some political points (perhaps temporarily) and further disengaged the very people who can solve the problem. It did so by doling out hurtful fines to airlines whose staff were doing what they thought the government wanted them to do.
In short, the folks who spent the night on an ExpressJet (operating as a Continental Express flight) regional jet last August 8 in Rochester, Minn. had no legal requirement to be stuck on the ramp. They could have been allowed in the terminal since they were, in fact, getting off an airplane, not getting on one. Once there, they should have been allowed, as free citizens, to plan the rest of their night as they saw fit.
The problem was that the people in charge of the entrance to that terminal believed that they could not allow the door of the airplane to open and the people to walk across a few feet of concrete or asphalt to a door. That 20-pace walk would have put them in a secure area of an airport, where, God knows, people on their way from Houston to Minneapolis, are capable of all kinds of mayhem at 1 a.m. in Rochester, one of the very few places they thought they might end up on a stormy August night.
According to several emails we've received, the captain of the airplane did his best. He tried to convince the ground folks that it would be OK to let 47 already-inconvenienced people get to a place where they would be at least a little more comfortable and make up their own minds about what they wanted to do, like free people in a free society.
Apparently, the captain was willing to take charge but that authority is limited to the airplane. So they sat for six hours in an airplane that was neither designed nor equipped for that length of occupancy.
Instead of fining airlines that can't afford it and making a huge fuss about something that would never be tolerated anywhere else in a public place (imagine if a city bus driver wasn't allowed to discharge passengers when the bus broke down), why not simply give airline pilots the authority to walk their passengers through the secure area.
It might require some training and some cooperation with the TSA but considering the decisions that rest with the flight crew under normal circumstances, it seems they could be entrusted with this.
The pilots and cabin crew were every bit the prisoners their passengers were in this incident but it was probably worse for them. They're trained to protect the passengers and ensure their safety and comfort. That must have seemed a lofty goal in a packed RJ on a stifling Minnesota night when relief was just a few steps away.