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Editorial: Growing old on the tarmac

Thursday, December 24, 2009

It was a few days after Christmas 2006 that Napa Valley real estate agent Kate Hanni became a political activist. The airlines drove her to it.

Hanni, her husband and sons were flying from San Francisco to Mobile, Ala., by way of Dallas, when bad weather diverted their flight to Austin. Storms happen, but what followed never should have occurred. The Hannis and their fellow American Airline passengers were stuck on the tarmac for nine grueling hours.

In 2007, Hanni’s was born.

Less than three years later, Hanni’s activism paid off. Monday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced new rules that prohibit U.S. airlines from keeping planes on the tarmac for more than three hours – absent a strong security reason – and require airlines to provide food and potable water – as well as working toilets – after two hours of on-the-ground delay. The new rules go into effect after 120 days.

The Air Transport Association has opposed a tarmac time limit on the grounds that a three-hour deadline will only add to delays and cancellations when stormy weather jams the works. What is more, if passengers have the option to deplane, there could be fights between those who want off the plane, and those who want to keep the plane’s place in line.

Should such problems arise, the administration should consider tweaking the rules.

Or it could be that the new rules will improve flying and the airlines’ image. Hanni did not become enraged because of unforeseeable or unmanageable problems. She got angry because she was stuck in plane for nine hours for no good reason. Passengers aboard a Continental ExpressJet flight who were rerouted to Rochester, Minn., at midnight one August night, and held on board for six hours, voiced similar complaints – smelly toilets and no food, when they were so close to an airport with restrooms and water fountains.

Hanni may have exaggerated when she referred to her experience as “imprisonment” – but it unquestionably isn’t healthy.