Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Prisoners on a Plane


LAST summer, I sat in the Denver airport for nearly four hours waiting for my flight to take off.

It was maddening. The entire United Airlines terminal was packed with angry travelers whose flights were on hold. There were no weather delays. There were no explanations.

But I was lucky. I waited in the terminal where there was fresh air, food and functioning bathrooms.

With increasing regularity, passengers are being held prisoner on airplanes for eight, 10, even 11 hours while they wait to fly. Air conditioning fails, flight attendants run out of food and toilets back up.

It happened on American Airlines when passengers sat for eight hours in Austin, waiting for heavy storms to dissipate in Dallas.

It happened in New York where some JetBlue passengers sat for 11 hours in a snowstorm.

It happened in Detroit when passengers sat on planes for eight hours because of weather.

And it culminated when JetBlue, through a series of admitted missteps, had its flight schedule paralyzed for nearly a week, throwing the plans of thousands of passengers into chaos.

Now, a "Passenger Bill of Rights" is in the works, being endorsed by frustrated travelers and politicians eager to make capital out of a bad situation. JetBlue, reeling from a public relations disaster, has introduced its own plan which would compensate travelers for delays.

So weather happens. Icy conditions and severe thunderstorms can cause delays anywhere, anytime. We've all been there. But it's how airlines are reacting to those unexpected delays that has become an issue.

Consider this from a JetBlue passenger: "The plane was like a `sound-proofed coffin' when the windows were iced over," she told CNN. Another said she and other passengers were getting testy because the flight attendants told them they couldn't hand out food or water until the plane had been grounded for at least four hours, citing a Federal Aviation Administration rule. At least two of the passengers were diabetic.

Another passenger said there was no power, and flight attendants had to keep opening the doors so they could breathe comfortably.

Or this, in the case of the American Airlines flight in Austin: "There was a woman who was having to make diapers out of torn-up T-shirts for her baby," said passenger Tim Hanni, a Napa resident who together with his wife, Kate, launched a blog and an online petition calling for passage of a new Passenger Bill of Rights.

How did it come to this?

Sure, customer service isn't what it used to be. In fact, it's damn near nonexistent in most industries.

But there are other factors at play.

Since 9/11, airlines have engaged in massive cost cutting to offset losses. There are fewer flights with more passengers on those flights. That makes it harder to rebook passengers when large amounts of flights are canceled. So cancellations are avoided. Planes will load up and wait for a break in the weather. If it comes

Now, here come the feds to the rescue. California Sen. Barbara Boxer said she plans to introduce a Passengers' Bill of Rights that would give passengers the right to deplane when an aircraft has been on the ground for more than three hours past its scheduled departure time.

"... To keep passengers - which usually include infants and the elderly - on a plane for 11 hours in the worst of conditions is absurd," Boxer said on her Web site. "If a plane is stuck on the tarmac or at the gate for hours, a passenger should have the right to deplane. No one should be held hostage on an aircraft when clearly they can find a way to get people off safely."

Currently, there are no government regulations limiting the time an airline can keep passengers on grounded aircraft.

But like the problem it seeks to eliminate, this bill may end up grounded. Powerful airline interests will fight it. Security concerns will be raised. A pro-business president will be reluctant to endorse it. And the government has had a checkered record of helping people in need. Just ask the people of New Orleans.

Holding people hostage is intolerable. And we clearly can no longer expect the airline industry, which has been allowed to become unaccountable to the flying public, to do the right thing.

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