MINNEAPOLIS — Continental Express Flight 2816 smelled like diapers. It had no food and a full toilet. Its 47 passengers had been stranded on a tarmac in southern Minnesota since after midnight.

"They are getting really upset — you know, with the plane," the captain told her dispatcher just before 3 a.m.

Recordings released Friday of conversations among the captain, dispatcher and staff for another airline at the Rochester, Minn., airport expose a breakdown that kept the plane sitting on the tarmac for almost six hours — for no clear reason — and triggered a Department of Transportation investigation.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood released the recordings along with conclusions from his department's investigation exonerating ExpressJet, the regional carrier that operated the flight for Continental Airlines.

Instead, he criticized Mesaba Airlines — which was in charge because it had the only employees left at the airport — for refusing to let the passengers inside the terminal because all security personnel had left for the night.

"There was a complete lack of common sense here," LaHood added. "It's no wonder the flying public is so angry and frustrated."

The plane left Houston at 9:23 p.m. Friday and was scheduled to arrive in Minneapolis by midnight. Instead, severe thunderstorms forced air controllers to divert the plane south to Rochester, where it landed about 12:30 a.m.

It received clearance to take off at 2 a.m., but the storms started again.

The captain called dispatchers in Houston 45 minutes later.

"Well, the weather is moving in here now," she said. "So I mean this is getting to be ridiculous. We can see lightning off — I mean, the weather is moving southeast. It's moving here right down on top of us."

When dispatch called back 12 minutes later, she asked if a bus was coming to take passengers to Minneapolis, about 85 miles away. Dispatch said flash flooding had made the roads impassable.

The recordings show dispatchers trying to persuade officials for Mesaba, a unit of Delta Air Lines of Atlanta, to allow passengers inside. Passengers from an earlier flight diverted to Rochester had been allowed to deplane and were driven by bus to Minneapolis.

However, Mesaba officials said there were no more buses available.

"I can't get her a bus, I can't do anything," said a Mesaba representative.

"You can't do anything for her? OK," said the ExpressJet dispatcher.


"Because she was saying nobody was letting her off the airplane, letting the people off the airplane and all that," the dispatcher continued.

"We can't — I mean we were just able to let these guys off. We can't get them a bus. If I can't secure them a bus, I can't have them in a closed airport," the Mesaba representative replied.

Eight minutes later: "I just spoke to (Mesaba's representative) out there and she says there is nothing she can do to help us out," the dispatcher told the captain. "She's not going to let them off the airplane."

The exasperated captain replied: "That's ridiculous."

Just after 4 a.m., about four hours into the ordeal, passenger Eleanor Thatcher said she remembered one of her husband's former high school students was Steven Leqve, manager of the Rochester airport. She said she called his home. "I wanted him to know what was going on," she said, adding that Leqve agreed to come to the airport.

At 5 a.m., the flight got clearance again. But by then, its crew had worked more than the legal limit of hours. Another crew had to be flown in.

Passengers were kept waiting until 6 a.m. before they could enter the terminal. It took another 2 hours for the passengers to re-board the same plane — still with a full, smelly toilet — to head to Minneapolis. They landed at 9:15 a.m., almost half a day after leaving Houston.

Mesaba CEO John Spanjers said he disagreed with the department's conclusions, which do not match his airline's understanding of the event. In a statement, Delta CEO Richard Anderson said he has reached out to Continental's chairman and CEO about the incident.

"Delta is working with Mesaba to conduct an internal investigation, continue our full cooperation with the DOT and share all the facts with Continental," Anderson said.

Leqve reiterated on Friday that the passengers could have come into the terminal at any time.

"The aircraft did eventually come to the building," he said. "And the passengers were offloaded."

ExpressJet spokeswoman Kristy Nicholas said the airline will now keep contact information on file for airport administrators.

"That is one of our lessons learned," she said in an e-mail.

Continental has issued each passenger a refund for the flight, a $200 travel voucher and a $50 American Express Gift Card, said Link Christin, who was also on the flight.

Christin said the incident was a clear example of why more safeguards are necessary for passengers.

"To me, the critical issue is not who's to blame, but to figure out what happened and how it could be prevented in the future," said Christin, a lecturer at William Mitchell College of Law.