For the first time, the Department of Transportation has fined airlines for leaving passengers stuck on a plane, a decision that could have a wider impact on the airline industry and the push for a passengers bill of rights.
Passengers on a Continental Express flight that was diverted because of bad weather were unable to get off the plane for nearly six hours in August in Rochester, Minn.
The DOT fined Continental Airlines and its regional carrier, Express Jet, $100,000 on Tuesday. A $75,000 fine was also issued against the company that operated the airport gate where the plane sat from about midnight until 6 a.m.
"Every airline is paying attention to this decision, and they're going to act accordingly, and hopefully they're not going to keep passengers on the plane quite as long," said Don Swaim, a Dallas aviation attorney who handles enforcement cases with the DOT.
There is no federal law that limits the amount of time an airline can keep passengers on a plane.
The DOT fined Continental for "deceptive practices," saying, in effect, that the airline violated its advertised policy that says efforts will be made to get passengers off of a plane if a delay stretches to longer than three hours.
"It's a novel approach," Swaim said. "I mean, they're making the airlines stick to the standards they have set."
On this busy Thanksgiving travel week, passengers at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport greeted the news as a victory.
"Maybe if we start seeing more $100,000 fines, they'll get it together and start taking care of their customers," passenger Chad Reber said.
The decision may also prompt action in Congress on a "passenger bill of rights." Industry observers said the DOT appeared to be sending a message to Congress that it will take action on the issue if Congress does not address it.