By Gary Stoller, USA TODAY

Airlines are losing another ally in their fight to stop Congress from passing a law that would allow passengers to get off planes delayed at least three hours on airport tarmacs.

The Business Travel Coalition, a group that represents about 300 corporate travel departments, is coming out today in support of such a law after having opposed congressional action.

The coalition’s shift comes after it surveyed 649 corporate travel departments, travel agents and business travelers and found that more than 90% of travel departments — and about 80% of travel agents and business travelers — say passengers should have the option to get off flights delayed three hours or longer.

It also follows a similar shift in positions by two other business travel groups — the National Business Travel Association and the American Society of Travel Agents. And it comes as Congress is poised this fall to vote on so-called passenger rights legislation that would force the airlines to give passengers stuck on flights options.

The survey results “reveal a striking change in thinking in the mainstream business community about the need for congressional intervention,” says Kevin Mitchell, the coalition’s chairman.

“Some of the largest corporations on the planet, for whom government involvement in free markets is anathema, overwhelmingly have concluded that legislation is the best choice after 10 years of shattered promises of self-policing by airlines,” he says.

Airlines don’t want legislation

Although rare, more than 200,000 domestic passengers have been stuck on more than 3,000 planes for three hours or more waiting to take off or taxi to a gate since January 2007, a USA TODAY analysis of U.S. Transportation Department data has found.

In June, 278 flights waited on the tarmac for at least three hours, the most recent numbers from the department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics show.

The issue has attracted greater attention after an incident last month in which 51 passengers were stuck overnight on a delayed Continental Express flight at the Rochester, Minn., airport. The incident, in which passengers complained of a smelly toilet and not having food or drink, also has drawn greater attention to the legislation.

The House and Senate must decide on final wording of any passenger-rights provisions that now are in a bill to reauthorize and fund the Federal Aviation Administration.

A Senate committee voted in July to require airlines to let people off planes delayed for more than three hours. The House earlier had passed a less specific version that requires each airline to submit to the Department of Transportation a plan to let passengers off.

The Air Transport Association, which represents major U.S. airlines, says long delays “are unacceptable,” and it understands why they frustrate passengers. But, the group says, it opposes legislation that would force airlines to return planes to terminals after a set time to let off passengers.

Airlines have established “contingency plans” to deal with long tarmac delays and can handle the problems themselves without government intervention, says David Castelveter, the group’s vice president.

“We continue to believe that a hard-and-fast mandatory rule for deplaning passengers will have substantial unintended consequences, leading to even more inconvenience for passengers and, ultimately, more flight cancellations,” Castelveter says.

Airlines have spent a lot of money to improve service, he says, “including the use of new technology, the purchase of the most modern aircraft and facility improvement projects.”

But passenger-rights groups — and now business groups — are saying they cannot count on the airlines to solve the delays, and Congress must step in and force the airlines to let passengers off planes.

Congress must set ‘clear standard’

Kate Hanni of says three should be the maximum number of hours before a passenger is allowed off a plane, but many members of her group wonder if the limit should be one or two hours.

“Why in the USA do we even have to ask for a three-hour limit on the ground in a sealed, hot, sweaty metal tube?” she asks. “We thought this country was founded on freedom — freedom to move, freedom to breathe, freedom to eat and drink and have hygienic toilet facilities.”

The Business Travel Coalition, which for years has testified at congressional hearings in support of airlines remedying the tarmac-delay problem on their own, now agrees with The two groups have scheduled a Sept. 22 conference in Washington to discuss the issue.

About 80% of the respondents to the coalition’s survey, many of whom handle travel for Fortune 500 firms, said the airlines haven’t made a compelling case against the legislation.

It was the Aug. 7 delay in Rochester, in which the passengers were held on the Continental Express jet for 5½ hours, that turned the National Business Travel Association around. The association, which represents about 4,200 corporate travel departments and suppliers, had previously taken the position that the airlines should solve the problem.

In July, the American Society of Travel Agents reversed course and urged Congress to act “in the face of continuing delays and the evident lack of concrete efforts on the part of airlines to create a meaningful solution.”

Paul Ruden, the society’s senior vice president, was on a Transportation Department task force last year that recommended airlines establish time limits at each airport for letting passengers off planes.

But that hasn’t worked, he says, and Congress now needs to set “a clear standard for the airlines to follow.”