The latest infamous incident of Major Airline Tarmac Dysfunction
occurred in Minnesota last weekend when a severe storm curtailed Continental
ExpressJet Flight 2816. The flight, bound from Houston to Minneapolis-St.
Paul, was redirected to Rochester, Minn., and landed around midnight. Then,
because some person or persons made an unconscionably stupid call, the
airline did not release the 47 passengers until 6 a.m.
Passenger Link Christin described the experience as a
"nightmare" thanks to crying babies, one smelly toilet and no food. The
worst part: the whole mess appears to have been eminently avoidable, as the
Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that a Delta flight that also was diverted
to Rochester that night allowed its passengers to deplane at 3:30 a.m.
I almost feel sorry for the airlines. They are desperate to kill
the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, a measure sponsored by Sens. Barbara
Boxer, D-Calif., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, which was approved unanimously
by the Senate Commerce Committee.
Then they failed so monumentally that they may well have thrown
a few holdout votes into the yes corner.
Every time a stuck-at-the-gate horror story makes cable news,
former Napa real estate agent Kate Hanni pops up on TV. Hanni was
radicalized in 2006 when her American Airlines plane sat on a Texas tarmac
for nine hellish hours. Hanni started www.flyersrights.org and a campaign
for laws to protect against what she considered to be "imprisonment."
The Boxer/Snowe bill promises what seem like reasonable
protections for airline customers. Airlines would be required to provide
passengers with food, potable water and adequate restrooms. The biggie:
Airlines would give passengers the option to get off a plane that has been
on the ground for more than three hours.
"The airlines blame the weather," Hanni explained. "God creates
the weather, but the airlines make the decision to stay on the tarmac."
Industry critics claim that the bill would only make flying
worse for the American public. Consultant Terry Trippler sees the bill as "a
recipe for 'air rage'" that would pit passengers against each other. (Some
may want the captain to taxi back to the gate; others may not want to return
to the gate only to end up at the back of the line.)
"There will be no fighting," Hanni countered. Buses could
service passengers who want out.
But David A. Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport
Association, argues that it is not always safe or feasible for buses to
maneuver between planes in the worst weather.
"One of these situations like what happened in Rochester is one
too many," Castelveter noted. "We all know that." Flight 2816 was a
"misstep," he argued, not the rule.
And: "I promise you that if a three-hour rule goes into effect,
we'll be having this conversation again and talking about the unintended
consequences greater number of cancellations, flight delays and passenger
Beware, Castelveter added: If the Boxer/Snowe bill passes,
airlines will have an added incentive to cancel even more flights. Oh, joy.
By the way, if they can blame the weather, passengers will not be
compensated for hotels or meals.
He also argued that it does not make sense to promulgate
regulations that restrict the decision-making of pilots and the flexibility
Hanni has done the flying public a favor by letting Big Air
execs know that obscene delays will result in the sort of news coverage that
is bad for business.
I had to laugh when I called her group's hot line number
1-877-359-3776 and heard the message that tells callers they can talk as
long as five minutes. And frustrated fliers do, she assured me.
"People should never be forced to spend the night on the tarmac,
held captive on an airplane without food, water and sufficient restrooms,"
quoth Boxer in a statement after the unscheduled Rochester overnight.
I feel nothing but solidarity with the passengers trapped on
Flight 2816. But "held captive"? I am not sure I want to cross the country
in a plane elbow to elbow with passengers who are perhaps too aware of their
"rights." (I put "rights" in quotes because passengers surrender their
autonomy to the crew when they board a plane.)
In an e-mail, Trippler noted that the Flight 2816 fiasco may be
the straw that breaks the camel's back on the Boxer/Snowe bill. But: Just
because the Senate passes a law that mandates that passengers be allowed to
get off a plane, it doesn't mean that airlines can just open the doors and
If the Boxer/Snowe bill passes, the airlines will have brought
it on themselves. But that doesn't mean the law will work. The Senate can
pass a law that says that only a few dominoes need fall, but no piece of
paper can keep the dominoes in their wake from tumbling as well.