The U.S. Dept. of Transportation set a couple of precedents today as it fined Continental Airlines and ExpressJet Airlines $100,000 for their parts in causing passengers on Continental Express flight 2816 to be marooned on board the aircraft at Rochester International Airport in Minnesota for almost six hours in the early morning of Aug. 8, 2009.
Mesaba Airlines, which didn't operate the flight but was responsible for its ground handling at the airport, also got whacked with a civil penalty of $75,000, as well.
The fines, a victory for passenger rights, marked the first time that the DOT levied penalties against carriers -- Continental and ExpressJet, which was operating the flight -- because of aggregious tarmac delays.
And these fines -- which amount to settlements with the airlines -- also signalled the first time a carrier serving as a ground handler for another airline got tagged with a penalty for failing to get the passengers off the plane in a reasonable amount of time.
In this instance, Mesaba improperly informed the plane's captain that the passengers would have to remain on board the aircraft because no TSA personnel were present, the DOT found. The passengers, who were stuck on the plane with little food from 12:30 a.m. until around 6:15 a.m., should have been allowed to deplane "as long as they remained in a sterile area," the DOT concluded.
The DOT also found that Continental and ExpressJet engaged in unfair and deceptive practices "because ExpressJet failed to carry out a provision of Continental's customer service commitment requiring that, if a ground delay is approaching three hours, its operations center 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."
Continental ultimately was found to be responsible for ExpressJet's actions because Continental was the airline marketing the flight and responsible for the passengers, the DOT found.
Continental joined Twitter Aug. 2 and has had little to tell its customers and Twitter followers about the incident other than to post a press release Aug. 21, expressing gratitude at the time that the DOT recognized that the ExpressJet crew tried to get the passengers off the plane.
Continental also stated in the press release that it took responsibility for the "unacceptable" situation and acknowledged that its "processes clearly broke down..."
But, Continental, ExpressJet and Mesaba should jump on this incident -- and even the fines -- as an opportunity to engage their customers on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube -- anywhere -- about their concerns.
Issuing press releases is not an effective way to communicate with your customers.
Get into the social media trenches. Be transparent.
Listen, airlines: I know this is a radical thought, but perhaps you actually will learn something from your customers if you get involved with them.
I've been monitoring Continental's Twitter account today and so far not a peep -- or should I say a tweet -- about the DOT penalty.
C'mon Continental: In the scheme of things, you are a pretty good airline.
Start communicating with your customers.