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OUR OPINION: Learn lessons of 'Stuck on plane' case

News of the passengers who spent the night trapped in a plane at the Rochester, Minn., airport likely left most readers shaking their heads in disbelief. But here's hoping that at the Grand Forks airport, officials were nodding -- in vigorous det...

News of the passengers who spent the night trapped in a plane at the Rochester, Minn., airport likely left most readers shaking their heads in disbelief. But here's hoping that at the Grand Forks airport, officials were nodding -- in vigorous determination not to let such an incident develop here.

Today, those officials should be making sure contingency plans are in place that everyone knows what to do. Otherwise, airport officials risk hearing verdicts such as this one about what happened in Rochester:

"There was really a complete lack of common sense here. It's no wonder the flying public is so frustrated."

Spoken by none other than Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who has taken a personal interest in the Rochester case. Needless to say, that's not the kind of publicity any airport needs.

Grand Forks -- and Fargo, Devils Lake, Bemidji and every other community with small or medium-sized airports -- should take careful note.

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As is the case with many serious mishaps, this one came about because of a chain of unfortunate events. For airport and airline executives, each event should be a lesson learned.

First off was the hour. At about midnight on Aug. 8, thunderstorms forced an ExpressJet Airlines flight to divert to Rochester instead of landing in Minneapolis, the plane's intended destination.

The second event was the airport. As is typical among local or regional airports, many operations at the Rochester airport are closed or curtailed overnight. Airport managers had departed when the ExpressJet aircraft landed Aug. 8, as had Transportation Security Administration officials.

Left in charge was a local representative of Mesaba Airlines, who refused to let the passengers enter the terminal.

But while that refusal was a mistake, it's at least understandable under the circumstances. And that's all the more reason for airports to have good contingency plans in place.

For example, the door of the ExpressJet aircraft in question opens about five feet above the ground. The aircraft has neither a slide nor a built-in ladder; to routinely deplane, passengers need either a set of roll-up stairs or a jetbridge.

But according to one commentator, "Mesaba personnel only had a jetbridge available to them, and it was occupied with another aircraft."

Should the captain have ordered passengers to deplane via jumping to the ground and walking to the terminal? During a thunderstorm?

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Security was another concern, given that TSA officials had gone for the night. But passengers could have and should have deplaned to a secured area of the terminal, the Rochester airport's manager has said.

Are local airports equipped for such emergencies?

The answer likely is "yes," where facilities are concerned. But facilities weren't the issue in Rochester. Training was the issue -- training for late-night and other situations that call for people to think out of the box. Local airports should study this case and incorporate the lessons learned.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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