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Air Travel

Senate panel: Airlines must let passengers off stuck planes

Jul 22, 2009

U.S. airlines would have to let passengers off planes stuck on tarmacs after three hours, a move urged by consumer groups, under legislation approved by a Senate panel today.

The measure, prompted by lengthy runway delays that garnered national attention, has been opposed by airlines, which say the loss of flexibility could worsen delays. The rule would allow an additional 30 minutes at pilots’ discretion and exempt cases when safety is at risk.

The panel “made the right decision,” Kate Hanni of, an airline passengers’ group, said in an interview after the voice vote by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “It is possible for the airlines to deplane passengers safely.”

Delta Air Lines Inc., AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and other carriers have been trying to fend off a three-hour limit since flights that waited for as long as 10 1/2 hours in late 2006 and early 2007 put tarmac delays in the national spotlight. Carriers say operators should decide when to release passengers in delays due to weather or heavy traffic.

“There’s virtually nothing good in the three-hour rule,” David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association in Washington, said in an interview. “It would have many unintended consequences that would increase delays, increase cancellations and add more customer inconvenience, as well as cost to the airlines.”

FAA Funding Measure

The rule was included in a $34.6 billion plan to fund the Federal Aviation Administration for two years. The broader legislation also speeds modernization of the nation’s air- traffic control system, increases aid for rural air service and boosts safety requirements following a commuter airline crash near Buffalo, New York, earlier this year.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, told the Senate panel today she had concerns about a “hard and fast” rule that “could make it even worse for passengers.”

Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who has advocated for the standard, said “we do have exceptions,” including one for safety concerns.

American diverted more than 124 flights and had passengers stranded on 44 planes for more than four hours due to a Dec. 29, 2006, storm in Dallas-Fort Worth. A flight in Austin, Texas, was held on the runway for more than nine hours, according to a report by the Transportation Department’s inspector general.

On Feb. 14, 2007, a snowstorm in the Northeast caused JetBlue Airways Corp. to hold passengers on board 26 flights for more than four hours. The longest delay, at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport lasted 10 1/2 hours, according to the report by the inspector general.

‘Strong and Effective Protections’

The Transportation Department can’t comment on the three- hour limit because a proposed rule is under consideration, said Sasha Johnson, an agency spokeswoman. The department is weighing customer-service regulations that would make airlines’ contingency plans for tarmac delays legally enforceable as part of their so-called contracts of carriage.

“Consumers are entitled to strong and effective protections,” Christa Fornarotto, acting assistant secretary of the department, told a House panel in May. “More can and will be done.”

President George W. Bush’s administration was concerned that the three-hour rule wouldn’t operate in the best interest of passengers, said D.J. Gribbin, who was then the Transportation Department’s general counsel.

The rule might meet the wishes of some passengers, while turning back to the gate for other consumers may mean missing a connecting flight to Paris, he said.

Passengers’ Best Interests

“The best interest is getting the passenger to the destination as quickly as possible,” Gribbin said. “Airlines have different capabilities at different airports.” A three- hour rule “may work smoothly at some, it may not work at another.”

In the eight months through May that the government has kept detailed figures, 578 flights sat on the tarmac for three hours or longer, according to data from the Transportation Department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. There were almost 4.3 million flights in that period, so 0.013 percent of flights exceeded three-hour waits.

Delta had 49 take-off delays of more than three hours after pushing back from the gate so far this year, the most of any airline, according to the bureau’s data. It was followed by US Airways Group Inc. with 31 such delays and American with 25.

Hanni, 49, was on vacation with her husband and two sons in December 2006 when a nine-hour tarmac delay on an American flight gave her a new cause. She said the group she founded has 25,000 members and received 12,000 calls from passengers on a hotline.

Getting Agitated

Among those who contacted Hanni and support the three-hour rule is Mathew Bessette, 34, a real estate broker from Charlotte, North Carolina, who says he was stuck on a Delta flight on a New York tarmac for more than four hours last month due to weather.

“By hour three, people were really starting to get agitated,” Bessette said. “There’s nothing you could do. As a matter of fact, if you put up a big enough stink, you’d get arrested.”

His flight didn’t return to the gate because there was a “reasonable expectation they would depart soon” and turning back “would likely have resulted in the flight being canceled,” Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton said in an e-mailed statement.

Senate panel: Airlines must let passengers off stuck planes
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