The Edmond Sun

Nation/World

August 10, 2009

47 spend 'surreal' 6 hours in grounded plane

MINNEAPOLIS — By its sixth hour sitting on a deserted tarmac, Continental Express Flight 2816 had taken on the smell of diapers and an overwhelmed lone toilet.

What should have been a 2½-hour trip from Houston to Minneapolis had moved into its ninth hour, and the 47 passengers on board had burned through the free pretzels and drinks handed out early in their Friday night flight from Houston.

Passengers on another flight that had been diverted to the airport in Rochester, Minn., because of storms were allowed to disembark, and were put on a bus that would take them the remaining 85 miles to Minneapolis. And the terminal, where passengers could at least stretch their legs, breathe fresh air and use the vending machines, was a mere 50 yards away.

But it wasn't until 6 a.m. Saturday — six hours after landing — that Flight 2816's passengers were allowed out of the plane.

"It was almost a surreal quality that kind of developed during the night," passenger Link Christin said. "It felt like you were trapped in a cave underground."

In the end it took 12 hours and a new flight crew for Flight 2816 to complete its journey to Minneapolis. There have been longer waits on airport tarmacs in recent years — passengers on one February 2007 JetBlue flight waited 11 hours at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport — but the Flight 2816 delay gives the airline industry another black eye and could give a lift to legislation aimed at preventing such nightmare scenarios.

Continental Airlines on Monday deferred most questions about the weekend incident to ExpressJet Airlines, the regional carrier that operated the flight in its name. But Continental did issue an apology to passengers, calling it "completely unacceptable" and offering refunds and vouchers for future travel.

Flight 2816 left Houston on Friday at 9:23 p.m., scheduled to arrive in Minneapolis by midnight. Instead, severe weather forced air controllers to divert the plane south to nearby Rochester, where it landed after midnight.

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