Marketplace Scratch Pad

Airplanes going nowhere

Scott Jagow Aug 13, 2009

This week, the Transportation Secretary said he was looking into a five hour tarmac delay in Rochester, Minnesota. His department’s trying to decide whether to make new rules about people being cooped up in grounded airplanes for hours at a time.

USA Today has a good piece on the issue:

About 200,000 domestic passengers have been stuck on more than 3,000 planes for three hours or more waiting to take off or taxi to a gate since January 2007, a USA TODAY analysis of U.S. Transportation Department data has found.

Between October of last year and the end of June, 855 flights have sat three hours or more. Although that’s a large number, the flights represent a small rate — about 1.8 in 10,000 flights.

But June was the worst month by far for tarmac delays. There were 278 flights that had tarmac waits of three hours or more. Here’s what the law says:

Federal aviation law gives pilots and the airlines sole authority to decide whether to keep passengers on planes or let them off, government officials and aviation legal experts say. Anyone trying to leave on their own could be cited for interfering with the duties of the flight crew and fined up to $25,000, says Alison Duquette, spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, the government agency that regulates air travel and safety.

But if you watch the video in the USA Today story, you have to wonder who the heck is actually in charge. A passenger shot the video while he was stuck on a plane at JFK two years ago:

After seeing fellow passengers leave their seats for fresh air at an open side door and a mother fan her baby with an emergency evacuation card, (David) Ollila took his video camera and recorded the pilot’s answers to his questions about why the plane couldn’t return to the terminal.

The pilot called police to remove Ollila. But Ollila says police and airport security officials agreed everyone should be allowed to get off.

Continental CEO Larry Kellner apologized in USA Today’s editorial section for the incident in Rochester:

We fully recognize that the outcome was unacceptable. Both Continental and ExpressJet will provide a full recap to the Department of Transportation.

While we believed our processes for managing these situations were effective, they clearly broke down in the handling of Continental Express Flight 2816. We are working hard to identify the problems and will continue to work to improve service to our customers in irregular operations.

Continental and its regional airline partners are highly focused on this issue, and we remain strongly committed to resolving it.

But there’s stirring in Congress about a Passenger Bill of Rights that would resolve this for the airlines. It might cap the amount of time passengers can sit in a plane that’s not moving:

“The inexcusable actions of Continental Airlines … makes clear, once again, the airline industry’s refusal to protect passenger rights,” says Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a sponsor of the legislation.

The airlines, of course, oppose the bill:

“If you pass a law, you inevitably will end up with unintended consequences that may be worse than original problem,” says David Cush, CEO of Virgin America, which has a policy of returning delayed planes to terminals after four hours.

“We had a situation about a month ago at (New York’s JFK), where we had a plane sit out on the taxiway for four hours and 10 minutes,” Cush says. “We normally bring our planes back after four hours, unless we’re certain takeoff is imminent. Well, if we had had a four-hour law in place, that plane would have gone back to the terminal and then would have been 35th or 40th in line to take off. As it was, they got in the air 10 minutes later.”

There has to be some middle ground here. Air travel regulations and airline policies should be as stiff as possible to protect passengers, but when those policies, instead, endanger people’s health and sanity, they no longer make sense.

Just be sure you watch that video.

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