December 24, 2009
Deplane, Deplane
Years before the era of tarmac strandings, of airline passengers trapped in metal tubes without food or working toilets, waiting for hours in filth and foul air and frustration for a departure time that might or might not come, the writer Ian Frazier imagined a commercial flight piloted by Samuel Beckett.

“The time of the dark journey of our existence is not revealed,” says Captain Beckett, on a trip from nothingness to empty bleak eternal nothingness, via O’Hare. “When we deplane, I’ll weep for happiness.”

Mr. Frazier was being funny. But time has greatly blurred the distinction between Beckett’s fictional void and the real-life runways on which airlines imprison tens of thousands of passengers a year, neither traveling nor not traveling, unable to escape. This happens when an airline refuses to return a delayed plane to the terminal, lest it lose its place in the takeoff line.

On Monday, the Obama administration imposed a solution that Congress has only talked about. It declared that customer torture cannot be a part of an airline’s business plan. After two hours, it said, give the poor souls food and water. After three hours, let them off the plane. Stop cramming your schedules with too many flights that will never be on time. The administration, speaking in the language airlines understand, mandated stiff cash fines for violators: $27,500 per passenger.

The decisive action by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood punctures the absurdist fiction offered by the airlines — that self-policing and consumer complaints are power enough to get them to act decently and sensibly, and that when long delays occur, it’s best for suffering passengers and crew to pull together to help the bottom line. Predictably, the airlines responded by warning, or threatening, that the new rules will only create more delays.

The flying public has learned to tolerate a lot of discomfort and inconvenience in return for lower fares and higher security. As it should. But when indignity turns to horror — as it did in August for the passengers stuck overnight on a runway in Rochester, Minn., as food and water ran out and toilets overflowed, with the terminal only yards away — some basic protections have to apply.

Having enough pretzels and bottled water, clean toilets and rational schedules — and being willing to let passengers off the plane when the wait grows absurd — should not be beyond the capabilities of even a marginally competent airline, even in straitened times. Perhaps the belief in corporate progress is a vain illusion, but we are glad that the Obama administration is clinging to it.

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