Arthur Frommer

Support bill for airline passenger rights

In the world of travel, no news event has had a greater impact on public attitudes than a recent drama on board a Continental Express plane stuck on the tarmac in Rochester, Minn., for nine hours.

The incident lasted all throughout the night until 6 a.m., when passengers were finally permitted to de-plane. Despite their pleas to be let out — citing crying babies, overflowing toilets, depleted snack supplies and drinks — the airline stubbornly maintained that since all personnel of the Transpor-tation Security Administration had gone home, the airline was powerless to respond.

And why was the airplane stranded in this fashion? Apparently, the crew on board had overused their permitted flight time. Therefore, they were forced to wait — it was argued — for a substitute crew on its way to Rochester.

There has since been a raging argument between the airline and airport as to why it was not possible to permit the passengers to exit the plane. Though the airline claims there was no secure airport area to which they could be taken (because of the absence of TSA staff), the airport responds that such an area did exist and it was the airline's decision to refuse to bring passengers there. Continental Airlines has since responded with abject apologies, and is offering refunds and future air vouchers to the affected passengers.

If you have ever been stranded in an airplane on the tarmac for several hours — as I have — you will be horrified at learning how long this particular incident lasted. I remember my own unhappy predicament on one flight, when the delay was only three hours in length. I felt trapped, agitated and pressured.

And yet this is no isolated incident. According to recent federal airline statistics, such strandings take place with respect to as many as 1,200 flights a year. But on every such occasion, the airlines argue that their crews are justified in refusing to lose their place in line by returning to the terminal. Or else they claim to have implemented procedures — fresh supplies rushed to the plane, cleaning crews, opening the main airplane door to let fresh air in — that alleviate the situation. It would be a burdensome thing, they state, to set forth an arbitrary requirement that passengers be permitted to de-plane after several hours.

In actual fact — as the Continental Airlines incident proves — the airlines have done virtually nothing to correct these situations. They obviously have not issued directives to their aircrews to return to the terminal after a certain number of hours have elapsed. They obviously have permitted individual staff members to reach their own decisions about such strandings. And they will never issue such directives unless the public, through their legislative representatives, demands it.

Fortunately, there's a possibility of congressional action. Last month, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee approved a proposed "Airline Passengers Bill of Rights" that would give passengers the option to require that they be let off the plane after a delay on the tarmac exceeding three hours. A pilot can extend that period by 30 minutes if he or she believes that the plane will be permitted to take off in just a short while.

Though the Senate calendar is such that this legislation cannot be taken up before November, it is hoped that in late autumn, the Senate will get to it. As you'd expect, the airlines are frantically fighting the bill. It is up to us, the traveling public, to demand that it be passed. Write to your representative in Congress.