As passengers flying over the Thanksgiving break were doubtless reminded, the glory days of commercial aviation are only a memory. You can blame deregulation or the turmoil caused by the 9/11 attacks or high fuel prices, but you are left with the sad fact that air travel has become a no-frills ordeal.
The industry's troubles don't justify treating passengers as if they were cattle, however. Yet that's how those aboard Continental Express Flight 2816 were treated on Aug. 8. The plane with 47 passengers was flying from Houston to Minneapolis when thunderstorms forced it to divert to Rochester, Minn.. When it landed about 12:30 a.m., the airport was closed and Mesaba Airlines employees -- the only airline employees at the airport -- refused to open the terminal, despite repeated pleading by the plane's captain.
As The Associated Press reported, the passengers of Flight 2816 were kept waiting nearly six hours inside the cramped regional airliner with crying babies and a smelly toilet although they were only 50 yards from a terminal. Only in the morning were they allowed to disembark.
This is not the first time passengers have been stranded on a tarmac in a plane as if they were in a cattle car shunted to a siding. It may, however, be the last. For the first time, the U.S. Department of Transportation has levied $175,000 in fines against three airlines involved in this debacle.
Continental Airlines and its regional airline partner ExpressJet, which operated the flight for Continental, were each fined $50,000. The department imposed the largest penalty -- $75,000 -- on Mesaba Airlines, a subsidiary of Northwest Airlines, which was acquired by Delta Air Lines last year.
"I hope that this sends a signal to the rest of the airline industry that we expect airlines to respect the rights of air travelers," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "We will also use what we have learned from this investigation to strengthen protections for airline passengers subjected to long tarmac delays."
Roger that. In an age when airlines must be more cost-efficient, they should get the message if made to pay when they mistreat their passengers.