Stranded air travelers still a united front

The Baltimore Sun

It has been a month since 120 passengers on Continental Airlines Flight 1669 were diverted during a storm to BWI airport and stranded on the tarmac for more than five hours with no food, water or toilet paper.

Since then, the group that gained notoriety for tapping on the overhead bins in unity to protest the conditions has done something other stranded, offended and otherwise poorly treated airline passengers have not done. The passengers - who live throughout the world - have stayed unified.

More than 70 of the passengers wrote a letter to Continental immediately after the July 29 flight demanding a refund and an apology for the flight from Caracas, Venezuela, to Newark, N.J., that ended up at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

They have stayed in touch and plan to travel together to Washington next month for a rally hosted by the Coalition for an Airline Passenger's Bill of Rights, a grass-roots lobbying group that has collected stories from stranded travelers and posted them on its Web site,

The airline declined to comment this week about the flight. But passengers said Continental has offered them various compensation, such as frequent flier miles or vouchers, which some have rejected.

"We organized while we were on the plane," said Caroline Murray, a director of a community development organization in Springfield, Mass., and a Flight 1669 passenger. "We took care of each other on the plane, and we're committed to each other now."

Murray said the passengers demanded a written apology, a refund on their tickets and a commitment to support passengers-rights legislation.

She said she was offered a $200 voucher toward future travel, which she declined.

She and others in the group said they would continue to seek a full refund and protections for future travelers. Some are discussing filing a class action lawsuit, which legal scholars said is rare.

Gonzalo Suarez, a musician who lives in Caracas and travels frequently to New York to record music, said he is constantly reminded of the experience with the airline, which he said was the "closest I've been to actually being kidnapped."

He said Continental dropped an extra 10,000 miles into his frequent flier account, though he needs 20,000 to upgrade to a first-class seat or get a free international flight. But he said even a good seat won't be enough compensation.

"I feel anxious in general every time I take a flight or when I anticipate taking a flight," he said. "I now feel that when I step onto a plane I really don't have rights anymore, it's basically being at the will of the captain or whoever is in command on the flight."

Israel Niezen, director of business development for an interactive media company in Los Angeles, penned the group's letter of complaint to the airline.

It detailed the airline's denial of food and water for passengers, including some sick and elderly. And it said once the international passengers were finally taken off the plane, they were considered a security risk and guarded by a dog, an accusation airline and airport officials said they were not able to confirm.

Niezen said he did receive an apology and a $300 voucher.

But he said in an e-mail, "While I appreciate Continental's delayed response and gesture, I don't really think that a $300 voucher is appropriate compensation for the terrible service we experienced. I still feel disappointed with Continental's service and reaction."

Continental is not the only airline to strand passengers on a plane. There were 20 other flights diverted to BWI that day, though officials say Flight 1669 sat on the ground the longest.

Airport officials said that after that day, they reminded all their airline tenants that they will make gates available so the carriers can unload stranded passengers.

Continental said at the time that the situation with Flight 1669 was complicated because the passengers were flying internationally and needed Customs' screening. BWI officials said Continental didn't request help for hours.

Airlines resist unloading passengers because they do not want to lose their place in line to take off after weather passes. And they don't want to delay a flight so long that crews exceed their limits on working.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics show that Continental is in the middle of the pack when it comes to delayed flights. (Airlines are not required to count diverted flights such as Flight 1669 among those delayed.)

In June, the latest month for which data are available, the airline's flights were on time 67.9 percent, just below the average of all major airlines of 68.1. The airline barely budged from June 2006, when its flights were on time 67.8 percent of the time, compared with the industry average of 72.8 percent.

Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, said the poor treatment of thousands of passengers this summer helps make the case for legislation forcing carriers to allow stranded passengers to get off planes and to better compensate them.

"We're not letting up," she said. "Strandings seem to be getting much more frequent."

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