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Weighing in on airline passenger-prisoners

December 28, 2009 | 10:40 am

A Times editorial last week appears to have gone against the punditry grain on the federal order requiring airlines to unload passengers after waiting on the tarmac for three hours. The Times wrote that the well-intentioned policy from the Obama administration could actually worsen delays and creates the illusion that the government is addressing a complex problem. Most other newspaper editorial boards that weighed in on this issue sided with the White House. The Washington Post editorialized last Tuesday:

Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to the rescue of beleaguered air travelers Monday by placing a three-hour limit on how long they can be forced to sit on grounded planes before they must be returned to the terminal. But don't expect immediate relief over the busy Christmas-New Year's travel axis. The new rule doesn't kick in for another 120 days. ...

The process that led to Monday's regulations started in the aftermath of the great ice storm of Valentine's Day 2007. 'Twas a nasty affair that left nine fully loaded JetBlue aircraft on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy airport in New York, some frozen to the ground, for six to 10 hours. Heeding the anger of irate passengers fed up with being treated no better than cattle, members of Congress introduced a passenger bill of rights. The House has passed legislation. The Senate has not. Until there is a law, Mr. LaHood's description of the new regulations as the Obama administration's "passenger bill of rights" will have to do.

Says the Boston Herald:

It's astonishing that it came to this but the federal government has finally decided it will no longer be up to U.S. airlines to decide what defines an acceptable delay on an airport tarmac.

Of course the most notorious stranding stories are familiar by now. Three years ago bad weather forced the closure of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, leaving some diverted American Airlines passengers stranded for up to nine hours. And JetBlue underwent a round of corporate soul-searching after stranding passengers for nearly 11 hours in New York the same year. ...

Of course the news comes as little comfort to holiday travelers scrambling this week after snowstorms ravaged the East Coast; the regs don't take effect for another 120 days.

Meanwhile the airlines say the new mandates will lead to more cancelled flights -- passengers may no longer be stranded on the airplane, but they'll be stranded in the airport.

Click here and here to read more reaction from editorial boards.

All the editorials, including The Times', correctly point out that forcing passengers to stew for several hours, sometimes overnight, while the plane waits in vain for a takeoff slot is unacceptable. But how much of a problem is this? Are travelers truly as abused by airlines, as these editorials let on, to the point that Washington must take action?

The short answer is no. As our editorial points out, about three passenger-loaded flights per day, on average, sit delayed on the ground for more than three hours. This comes across as a major problem until you consider that more than 28,000 commercial flights operate in the United States every day, the vast majority of which take off, land and disembark their passengers on time and with little cause for concern (as it should be). When extreme delays do happen, the causes are numerous and, in many cases, unpredictable. (Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and author of Salon's "Ask the Pilot" column, wrote about such delays -- and Washington's attempts at stopping them -- on Nov. 21.) 

It's one thing for airline industry commentary to be based more on the general public malaise over air travel than on reality; government policy is a different story.

-- Paul Thornton

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