Limit to tarmac time is an act of compassion

Now, either the plane is in the air in three hours or the airline has to let the passengers get off.


If Otis Redding had been sitting in an airplane instead of a dock by the bay, he might have sang:

Sittin’ in the morning sun/I’ll be sittin’ when the evening comes/Watching other planes fly in/Then I watch them fly away again/I’m just sitting on the tarmac all day/Watching the time roll away/Sittin’ on the tarmac all day/Wastin’ time.

The U.S. Department of Transportation finally got the message and ordered airlines to stop holding passengers for hours on end in grounded airplanes. Now, either the plane is in the air in three hours or the airline has to let the passengers get off. As a bonus, after two hours of being stuck on the ground, passengers must be given food and water. And there must be "operable lavatories."

Violations could be punishable by up to $27,500 per passenger.

It’s about time. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there have been 864 flights in the first 10 months of this year in which passengers were confined while their plane sat for three hours or more. In 2007 and 2008, there was an average of 1,500 flights a year carrying about 114,000 passengers that were delayed more than three hours.

But three hours is mild compared to some of the horror stories. In December 2006, American Airlines kept people on board for nine hours as a storm shut down the Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport. In January 1999, Northwest Airlines planes were grounded in Detroit, trapping passengers for seven hours.

The Air Transport Association, the trade group of major airlines, whined that the new rule could have "unintended consequences," such as more canceled flights.

Here’s a news flash: If a flight is supposed to last two hours and you spend three or more hours on the ground, you have effectively canceled the flight. It just doesn’t show up on the paperwork.

And if the passengers were making connections to other flights, they can fuggetaboutit. Now they get to spend additional hours in a long line trying to get their tickets straightened out.

These rules, which provide exceptions for safety, security or specific instructions from air-traffic controllers, are an act of compassion. In addition to smelly toilets, crying babies, cramped seats, stale air, no water and no food, the claustrophobic effects of being elbow to elbow with so many people for hours can make even the mildest mannered person feel like a caged animal.

The airlines should have taken care of this as a matter of customer service. But somehow that seems to be a lost concept on the industry. And it wonders why its profits are crashing and burning.


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