Airlines: hurry up and wait

Airlines: hurry up and wait

Beginning this spring, the federal government plans to impose stiff penalties on airlines that make passengers wait too long on the tarmac without feeding them or letting them get off the plane. Obama administration officials say the new rules are a response to several well-publicized experiences of recent years; they also come in advance of what would likely be action by Congress because of regulatory sluggishness after the ensuing consumer outcry. The administration also made a statement by acting on the cusp of the uber-busy holiday travel season, and with carriers struggling to recoup following weather-related disruptions to flight schedules to and from the Northeast the previous weekend. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said on Monday, December 21st that airlines must provide food and water after two hours, or an opportunity to disembark after three hours, or face stiff penalties – to the tune of $27,500 per passenger. Planes that don’t carry food on short flights will have to carry snacks for emergencies. “They’re going to have to have peanuts, pretzels on their regional jets; they’re going to have to start stocking up,” LaHood said. Although relatively few flights are actually held on the ground for more than three hours – roughly 1,500 a year, or about one in 6,200 flights — that number has affected over 100,000 passengers each year. The public resentment has been palpable. LaHood told reporters, “This is President Obama’s Passenger Bill of Rights,” making reference to similar legislation before Congress; the action doesn’t, however, require Congressional approval. Airline officials say the requirement will create complications, and could force grossly inconvenient measures. For instance, if certain passengers want to get off a flight, the airplane will have to abandon its spot in the takeoff rotation, then taxi back to the gate and wait while the baggage is removed by handlers. During the coldest months, they add, a plane could require de-icing again after those passengers disembarked. But advocates and groups in support of reform applauded the government’s rules, which they say require carriers to pay closer attention to human comforts. The rule applies only to domestic flights, and goes into effect in April. There will be varying effects from airport to airport. Sometimes airplanes are held on the ground during good weather at because of problems at the destination airport. In those instances, a stop at the terminal to let passengers get off costs the carriers nothing unless passengers have to transfer to other flights. Other cases could be more complicated. A plane might be far from the terminal; the rule new states the plane must arrive back at the gate within three hours, not that it turns around after three hours. A reporter asked the transportation secretary what would happen if an air traffic controller told a pilot to takeoff in five minutes, but that put it over the three hours mark. Said LaHood: “You know as well as I do that five minutes always extends out to 50 minutes, and almost always to five hours. There’s no such thing as five minutes, never, ever.” And he admonished the major airlines to provide safety and service “in a way that is halfway convenient.” The Department of Transportation keeps a month to month count of minutes of delay. Almost all of it accumulates in small increments, with long delays occurring sporadically. From January to October 2009, the number of flights which were delayed four hours or more on the tarmac ranged from a peak of 29 in July to zero in October. The main causes of delay are weather and air traffic problems, which often are caused by weather-related conditions. The airlines say that the worst in lengthy delays has already past, and that they are taking steps already, including carrying more food and beverages on board, and designing trucks that can remove travelers who want to disembark. But the worst of the worst stories are legendary. In January 1999, thousands of passengers were stranded in Detroit by Northwest Airlines on snow-covered taxiways and ramps. In a colossal error, the airline continued to land planes, although there wasn’t a way to get them to the terminal. The carrier later settled legal claims from passengers totaling over $7 million. On February 14, 2007, JetBlue passengers were stranded by the planeload at the airline’s Kennedy International Airport hub. Although the new rule has been on the drawing board since 2007, its implementation was accelerated by events in August, when a small regional jet flown for Continental Express crammed with 47 passengers sat on the tarmac at Rochester, Minnesota overnight. The flight had been diverted to Rochester while waiting for the weather to clear in Minneapolis. Continental Express does not have gates at Rochester, and an employee of another airline told the Continental Express captain that because Transportation Security Administration screeners had left for the night, the passengers weren’t allowed in the terminal. That was wrong. Penaltiesfor the carriers involved  exceeded $175,000. Under the administration’s new rule, the penalty could have been more than $1.2 million. – Boomer