The Travel Adviser: Flying fiascos: The domino effect and the blame game

Bad luck and weather can sometimes snowball into disaster.

airport airplane 88 (photo credit: )
airport airplane 88
(photo credit: )
What do Jason - who lives in Rosh Pina, Debbie - who works in Houston, and airline executives Larry Kellner and Haim Romano have in common? A strong loathing of the number six. While six is the only number that is both the sum and the product of three consecutive positive numbers and is also the number of points on the Star of David, when it comes to a time frame, six hours created havoc for all these individuals. Two recent flight experiences highlight the impotence of airline passengers once they board an aircraft. Like a captain on the high seas, an airline pilot and his crew have almost complete power over them. When an announcement comes over the speakers that you're to take your seat, you comply! Recently, Debbie and 47 other passengers boarded a Continental Airline flight from Houston to Minneapolis. It was the last flight scheduled for the day, departing Houston airport at 9:10 p.m. with a planned arrival in Minneapolis at 11:45 p.m. that night. While the skies were clear, the two-and-a-half hour flight should have arrived safely and on time at its destination. Unfortunately, as the plane approached Minneapolis, severe weather forced the pilot to divert the plane to a smaller airport - Rochester, Minnesota - where it landed close to midnight. Many of us have been on weather-delayed flights. Being stranded at an airport waiting to get the go ahead to take off can lead to interminable delays. Just as common is the practice of circling the skies hoping for a break in the weather so that the plane can make a safe landing. Rarer, as in this instance, is when the aircraft is forced to land at another airport. Keep in mind: passenger safety is foremost in the mind of all airlines so the decision to land in Rochester was the correct one, albeit the last correct decision made for six hours. On landing at Rochester airport, the passengers were greeted with this greeting; "We regret to inform you that for the present time we cannot permit you to deplane." Passengers were compliant, especially when given instructions with a firm, calming voice. No need to question anyone, it would probably be a matter of minutes until arrangements were made. Ah, the naïveté of those passengers. For without their knowledge, the blame game had begun. Continental Airlines, like so many large American carriers subcontract out their shorter flights to regional airlines. In this case an airline called ExpressJet was actually the local contractor. Rochester, Minnesota may have many charms but at midnight it is not easy to discover them. The passengers were not allowed to leave the plane until 6:00 a.m. Yes, for six hours, with foul odors emanating throughout the plane, the passengers became captives in a bureaucratic game. ExpressJet said passengers couldn't get off because security screeners had gone off duty. Officials at the Rochester airport vehemently denied this charge, claiming that passengers could have stayed in a secure part of the terminal and passed the buck to Continental who they accused of deciding to keep the passengers on the plane. This merry-go-round of excuses was met by almost total acceptance of the passengers. There was one toilet on the plane, which flooded after an hour. Food and most beverages were quickly devoured. After a few hours, passengers were told that the plane was going to take off, but the storm intensified. An hour later, they were told an airport bus was ready to collect them. The next hour they were told the bus wasn't coming. One more hour passed and they were informed that while the storm had now subsided and the plane in theory could take off, the flight crew had worked beyond the legally permitted time and that they had to wait for a new crew to arrive. Finally, six hours later with the sun peeking over the horizon, daylight brought salvation, fresh air, clean toilets and debarkation from their plane. A few hours later, with a new crew on the same filthy plane 47 passengers arrived in Houston almost numb after what they had endured. Tears of relief were mixed with acute anger at Continental Airlines and the sad realization that after so many similar airline experiences they had no legal recourse. The US Congress has debated over the years a Passenger Bill of Rights, but it remains just a lot of hot air. The incident did prompt an apology from both ExpressJet and Continental Airlines. Though it took over two days, the CEO of Continental Airlines, Larry Kellner, published a full-page editorial, expressing his remorse and assuring all the passengers involved that they would receive a full refund and vouchers toward future Continental flights. Has Continental learned the lesson? Only after the lawsuits that will inevitably spring forth and the changes in their policy when an incident like this occurs again, will we know. Kudos to Mr. Kellner that he stopped the blame game and took responsibility. Something that El Al has, to date, not done in the second airline fiasco. Jason was on vacation recently in Thailand. After two weeks of trekking through the countryside, lapping up the sun and sea on the islands it was time for him to fly back to Israel on El Al's nonstop, 10-hour flight from Bangkok. Cognizant that dehydration on flights is a possibility and not being the best flier, he vociferously imbibed the red wine proffered with his meal as well as copious amounts of water. While his intentions may have been honorable, the outcome was painful to the point of being near comedic. Four hours into the flight, the passengers were informed that all the bathrooms on the aircraft were blocked. By blocked, the crew announced that this meant every single toilet on the plane was not working and that all the toilets would be locked. So for six straight hours, not one of the 184 passengers was able to use the facilities. Try to imagine that for six straight hours you are forced to cross your legs. When the plane landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, passport control and baggage conveyors were completely avoided as passengers literally sprinted to the closest available restroom. The El Al spokesman released the following statement: "We apologize to the passengers for the inconvenience. To our regret a multiple malfunction like this happens only once every few years and we are sorry about this. This is the type of breakdown that to our great regret cannot be repaired during the flight." Concise, clear and to the point. These things happen. Jason would have preferred an apology from the CEO of El Al, Haim Romano, and an offer of compensation. He's still waiting. Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at