Liberate stranded passengers

February 21, 2007

Airline passengers have been willing to put up with an awful lot in recent years. Squished-in seating, roulette wheel pricing, delayed or lost baggage, protracted security screening based on the latest terrorists' crackpot scheme - all were tolerated because to get someplace far away fast, there is no alternative to flying.

But holding passengers hostage aboard planes stranded on tarmacs for as long as 10 hours - as though they were just so much cargo - exposed a level of insensitivity to human needs that cannot be excused.

Penitent airlines are promising to make amends, but that's not good enough. A drive under way in Congress to outlaw such treatment is welcome and long overdue.

For many people, being trapped indefinitely in a small space, close to dozens, perhaps hundreds, of cranky strangers without adequate food, water and toilet facilities is the definition of hell. And there is no justification for it. Even if an airplane has pulled away from its loading gate and there is no gate free to return passengers to the airport, they can be unloaded on the tarmac using portable stairs and shuttle buses.

JetBlue Airways, the popular carrier that went through a management meltdown last week, stranding hundreds of passengers for six hours or more on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport, now says it will pay penalties for such delays, according to the length of the wait. After five hours on the tarmac, passengers would be returned to the terminal and given a free round-trip ticket of equal value to their missed flight.

Five hours?!! Legislation introduced in Congress to create a "passengers' bill of rights" would prevent travelers from being stuck on a grounded plane for longer than three hours, and during that time they must be provided food, water and sanitary facilities.

A good case might be made that an hour or two should be enough for airline personnel to determine when a flight is likely to be cleared for takeoff and to give passengers the option of waiting it out in the plane or returning to the terminal.

Air travelers have often indicated that cost and convenience rank higher in their concerns than comfort, and airlines aren't exactly running a huge profit margin. Even so, a minimum level of customer service is not too much to expect.

This issue last surfaced on Capitol Hill in 1999, after Northwest Airlines passengers were kept on a grounded plane for seven hours during a snowstorm. Airlines fended off legislation by pledging to police themselves. They shouldn't be trusted again.

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