Let The Captain Take Charge On The Ramp

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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.

Comments (32)

Remember when stews had to be RN's? When airlines were proud to "cater" to travelers? When they would actually provide hotel rooms for delayed passengers? When they had to compete for business? When there was no TSA? Well, that was before MBA was required on a resume. 'Nuff said.

Posted by: Larry Fries | November 27, 2009 2:52 PM    Report this comment

Not wanting to rock the boat, they've acceded to ever more third-world-like security measures. They assumed that if they cooperated with the dictatorial agency, and deflected its ire towards GA, they'd be spared its wrath. Now they're learning the lesson Germany learned years ago that starts with "first, they came for the jews..."

Posted by: Justa Guy | November 28, 2009 12:15 PM    Report this comment

Wow, my keyboard's on fire! Sorry, Russ.

Posted by: Larry Fries | November 28, 2009 2:15 PM    Report this comment

The Captain IS in charge. His "risk" is that absolutely nobody will back him up in a fight over turf! The FAA, NTSB, and TSA have become so powerful and autonomous that everyone shivers with indecision.

Posted by: Larry Fries | November 28, 2009 3:05 PM    Report this comment

When we were based at a small Class C airport with airline service, an airport police officer advised me that if my wife crossed from our hangar to go 50 feet away to the restroom without a security badge, they would put her on the ground at gunpoint (any guess why I moved the airplane elsewhere!) I think it's about time that these people get a life and treat their "customers" - me and my family with respect. I completely understand that they need to check ID's, and take reasonable care to ensure security, but leave the guns and batons in their holsters! I'm willing to bet the airport police, or their instructions to the terminal were to blame in the Rochester incident. That being said, I think the Captain should have popped the door and told the airport police to fly a kite, but no doubt he'd have been answering for it - probably face down on the ramp!

Posted by: Josh Johnson | November 29, 2009 8:01 AM    Report this comment

Better idea: abolish the useless TSA

Posted by: DAVID PAGE | November 29, 2009 11:37 PM    Report this comment

What has the world come to? Let's not let gov't take away any more rights under the guise of protecting the public. The Captain used to have the authority in my day to make this a non-issue. Are we all like sheep??

Posted by: Randall Comber | November 30, 2009 4:35 AM    Report this comment

My brother and his son landed his 172 about 1 AM on a small class C airport in northern GA, taxied up to the ramp and was trying to figure out how to get access to public part of the airport when a security officer drives up. The officer threatens to arrest them for tresspassing, and then while they are standing under the wing of their A/C with the cooling engine popping, asks how they got on the inside the fence!!!!

Posted by: John McGlynn | November 30, 2009 5:19 AM    Report this comment

I do believe I would have tested the emergency exits...

Posted by: Marc Sabransky | November 30, 2009 7:50 AM    Report this comment

My thoughts as well, Marc. In fact, I continue to wonder why an emergency exit has not been popped yet during one of these absurd imprisonments. Confine me in a "death-tube" againt my will, without due process..??? That fits MY definition of an emergency. In fact, if so imprisoned in my home, I'd be entitled to use any level of force necessary to terminate said imprisonment.

Posted by: Jack Kane | November 30, 2009 8:46 AM    Report this comment

Could someone explain to a poor bemused European why the airline was fined when the situation was clearly beyond its control ?

Posted by: Unknown | November 30, 2009 8:51 AM    Report this comment

As a current airline captain, I would have taxied that aircraft over to a Fixed Base Operator (FBO), and let the people off into their non-sterile terminal. At least inside there, they could sleep in chairs, on the floor, wherever.. They could then have been delivered to the front of the airline terminal for rescreening the next morning. That E-145 can be pretty claustrophobic when stuck on it for a long time. As a veteran captain, I'm not afraid to take on the FAA,TSA, Airport management, etc.., if I feel it's necessary. It would have been a prudent decision to take some kind of action like this. As long as I'm making prudent decisions such as this, I feel secure in doing what I need to do for the passengers. I'll take the heat for it later, and I will win.

Posted by: Jeffrey Munzell | November 30, 2009 9:02 AM    Report this comment

As I recall the pilot in COMMAND is responsible for the safety and welfare of the pax and crew.The final authority rests with the PIC.Check the regs and USE them. Good Luck CAPTINS. DON

Posted by: DON WELOTH | November 30, 2009 10:07 AM    Report this comment

It is not so much that the TSA is out of control (which it is), but that the FEAR of the TSA is out of control. Ben Franklin said, "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security", and H.L.Mencken later said, "The average man does not want to be free. He simply wants to be safe."

The problem is that we've allowed the "TSA mentality" to overcome common sense, because we are so afraid of not being safe that we are willing to give up fundamental freedoms. Don't think that it's just Washington politicos who have taken away our fundamental freedoms--it is we, the American public, who have allowed our freedoms to be eroded in the name of safety and security--and it's beginning to come back to haunt us.


Posted by: Cary Alburn | November 30, 2009 12:26 PM    Report this comment

If someone "thought" they saw smoke in the cabin it would be necessary to evacuate the cabin for safety reasons. The prudent thing to do would then be to move all the passengers to the safety of the terminal. Once the doors were opened the "smoke" might dissapate very quickly. I sometimes think I see smoke when I am trapped in an airplane. I am sure some of the passengers were at least steaming.

Posted by: Johnny Miller | November 30, 2009 12:32 PM    Report this comment

>>To a "poor bemused European"; As we have created a litigious democracy as our form of protedtion, the "courts" will decide who pays what and to whom. Unless, of course, a settlement is made. In any case a bunch of lawyers will devour the carcass. Simple, no?

Posted by: Larry Fries | November 30, 2009 1:27 PM    Report this comment

It gets more complicated the more I read about it. The TSA blog (a governmental organisation has a blog?) claims they would have made staff available if asked.

The airport said :

Airport manager Steven Leqve refutes the claim, noting that a Delta flight was also redirected to Rochester because of weather, but it deplaned passengers at 3:30 a.m. Saturday.

While screeners had gone home for the night, passengers could have come into a secure area of the building, Leqve said.

"If it were my decision, I would have deplaned the passengers and let them mill about the building," he said.

But decisions about what to do with passengers ultimately lie with the airline, he said.

So it was the PIC at fault, then ?

"Poor bemused European"

Posted by: treuthardt | November 30, 2009 1:44 PM    Report this comment

Plane commanders protect your pax and crew or go sell popcorn on the sidewalk and take the TSA with you.It's quite simple, freedom from bureaucracy comes only with knowledge and courage,(GET SOME), DON

Posted by: DON WELOTH | November 30, 2009 2:14 PM    Report this comment

Extending the authority of the PIC isn't the answer, and the Crew really needs to be concerned with aircraft issues. With that in mind, a taxi to the GA FBO could have been done if the Captain really wanted to push the issue. When it was apparent that requests were going unheeded, I would argue a state of emergency was emerging due to the aircraft being placed into a situation of which it not designed, a hotel. Since 911, the Crew is now also subject to searches with their fingernail files being taken as well, they might take control of the aircraft. Nevermind they hopefully "already" have control... I liked most aviators that have been involved with airport operations are sensing something on the horizon. I sometimes get concerned that one size fits all will bleed into GA operations as witnessed by recent rulemaking. You can bet that the ones making the decision in Minn. could have contacted someone further up the food chain or the Airport Director by cell phone. If not, then someone needs to replaced by someone that can think in the abstract beyond rule #105 which flys in face of logic...there will always be exceptions. I can hope that the Bozo that made the call finds themself with all their wisdom held up by a drone that can't beyond their nose. Airports are dynamic places and "should" be staffed with those familiar with what can go wrong and trained with something akin to Aernautical Decision Making.

Posted by: Chuck West | November 30, 2009 11:33 PM    Report this comment

And yes, I know how to spell Aeronautical, I just can't type as fast as I think...I guess that is a good thing and a review was in order.

Posted by: Chuck West | November 30, 2009 11:45 PM    Report this comment

Chuck, you do reel good for a boy!

Posted by: Larry Fries | November 30, 2009 11:56 PM    Report this comment

None of this addresses WHY the aircraft was stranded - the failure of the US Government to design and operate an ATC system that can handle market driven traffic in weather.

Those passengers were stranded due to government rules, and the airline is being fined by the same government.

Posted by: Max Buffet | December 1, 2009 11:01 AM    Report this comment

Harry, I think the diversion was due to thunderstorms - not ATC rules. A thunderstorm is more than capable of spitting an airliner out in little pieces. Until someone figures out a way to move the storms, we'll always have weather delays and diversions. A fancy new ATC system is not going to change that - the issue is what to do when the inevitable happens and in my opinion TSA and the airport authority were at fault on this one!

Posted by: Josh Johnson | December 2, 2009 6:54 PM    Report this comment

In defense of the pilot in this case, it's important to remember that we have the benefit of hindsight. In retrospect, it is clear that the pilot shouldn't have let this happen, but he didn't KNOW at the time that there would be a 6-hour delay. What would have heppened if somebody yelled "smoke" popped the emergency slides, and then 2 minutes later they got their clearance to depart for their destination? Rather than looking like a hero for catering to the passengers, he'd be fired for not being ready to depart when the clearance came.

Obviously, at some time common sense should have prevailed and everyone realized that they were in for a long delay, but by the time this realization dawned on everyone, they'd already been trapped for a few hours, daylight was coming, and by the time eveyone deplaned and found a bench or hotel room it would have been time to load up and head out again.

The point being, it's always easy to point out problems after the fact, but it's seldom apparent when you're involved in an evolving situation.

Posted by: Stefan Murry | December 3, 2009 1:46 AM    Report this comment

As an ex airline pilot, I would have had a "fire warning light" in the cockpit. Passengers would have been deplaned. In my day "only God above me" was the rule. We need to end this happy clappy captain situation we now seem to be in.

Posted by: Neil Munro | December 3, 2009 4:31 AM    Report this comment

I have never been stranded in an airliner as these people were but if it happens I will pop the door and take the heat.As soon as the dust settles I'll be on every news channel in the nation. The first person to do it will be a national hero.Even sheep have a leader.

Posted by: Brian Bailey | December 3, 2009 7:44 AM    Report this comment

That is so true Stefan, but when you put a title such as "Captain" in front of name, it comes with the turf. Your decisions and actions and inactions will always be questioned, tested and judged. In regards to the question of expanding the Captain's responsibility for the passengers "off-plane", it is unneeded and would further muddy the water. Once off the ship, plane, bus, taxi, the citizen is responsible for their own actions...it wouldn't be long before the Airlines (Boss) would want it that way via policy.

Posted by: Chuck West | December 3, 2009 8:42 AM    Report this comment

I agree with the editor's recommendation to extend captain's authority to protect their crew and pax. Airlines themselves will argue against captain's control outside of the airplane and indeed flight attendants have tried unsuccessfully to argue the captain's authority does not extend outside of the cockpit. But the CURRENT FAR's already cover the captain's responsibility. I would have taken those people off the plane period. No law or logic justifies what happened. Pax had already been "cleared" and posed no threat in any sense so they would have gone from a secure area to a non-secure area. Where is the harm? Captains should be captains and do what they need to do. When they are threatened with termination or litigation - that's why pilot unions exist in part - to defend their members where the airlines or the authorities fail or refuse to stand up for them. It should never come to that - but with the overlapping of so many self-important government agencies falling all over themselves to justify their existence, sadly, it has...

Posted by: DENIS BRESLIN | December 3, 2009 8:58 AM    Report this comment

Ya'll can relax, I got your back. Google John Dyer TSA hearing, and see if you agree with my bottom line. "any efforts to impose security regulations on General Aviaiton WILL be met with violent resistance".
TSA=Thousands Standing Around
Time to end this Republican Welfare Program......
Blue Side UP!

Posted by: John Dyer | December 3, 2009 10:29 AM    Report this comment

You can't drive 65mph, safely, on an icey freeway and you can't fit the same number of airplanes in airspace of which half is made unsafe by weather. An appeal for a solution to that problem goes to a much higher authority than the FAA.

Posted by: Jennifer Carr | December 3, 2009 6:00 PM    Report this comment

It can be argued (and is) that the Captain has sufficient authority to deplane his passengers as he sees fit for their safety. Unfortunately we have created an environment where our fear of recrimination by government agencies (e.g. TSA) and by the press trumps our (former) right of self-determination and responsible thinking. If society critically questions every decision and tries to write laws and regulations for every occasion we paralyze the people's ability to make decisions in difficult circumstances.

Historically, the pilot (or the station manager) would have taken it on his own responsibility to deplane the passengers. Even if that proved to not be the best decision (ie a clearance arrived a few minutes later) the airplane/faa/public would have shook their heads, suggested a different decision in the future and be done with with whole affair. Today that pilot or station manager would face TSA interrogation, possible arrest, maybe even some congressional hearing, and public pillorying with little or no support from his superiors, company or union (for fear they are dragged to the same fate).

Posted by: Kingsley Hill | December 4, 2009 7:04 AM    Report this comment

Having been an airline captain for many years I can tell you I would be much more worried about being fired by the airline for letting passengers off, without the company's permission. It really depends on the airline.

Posted by: Christopher Marks | December 4, 2009 7:11 PM    Report this comment

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