Brad Dwin was so angry about being stuck on an airplane last month that he volunteered to work for free for a passengers-rights organization.

Dwin, president of a marketing and public relations company, says he spent about six hours on June 10 in a window seat waiting on the tarmac of Washington’s Dulles airport for his United Airlines (UAUA) flight to take off to Las Vegas. Looking out the window, he saw other planes waiting. Like Dwin, passengers on those planes were essentially trapped, too.

Being “trapped on a plane for several hours causes a lot of frustration,” Dwin, of Silver Spring, Md., says. “You reach a certain point when people with a calm demeanor get angry.”

Dwin’s anger took him to It’s a group that has been lobbying Congress since January 2007 to free airline passengers from being held on planes for hours with no way to get back to the terminal to make other travel arrangements.

“Passengers don’t want to be treated like cargo — they want to be treated like paying passengers,” says Kate Hanni, who founded after her family spent more than eight hours on the tarmac. “Passengers feel completely powerless trapped in a sealed metal tube with no access to goods and services, and no way to get off.”

Congress has gotten the message. Legislation that would let passengers get off planes delayed on airport tarmacs is moving through the House and Senate as part of a bill reauthorizing and funding the Federal Aviation Administration.

A Senate committee last week voted to require airlines to let passengers get off planes that are delayed for more than three hours. The House has passed a less specific version. It requires each airline to submit to the Transportation Department a plan to allow passengers to get off planes with long delays.

For many irate fliers, action seems overdue. About 200,000 domestic passengers such as Dwin have been stuck on about 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 Transportation Department data shows. Between October 2008 and May 2009, there were 577 planes that sat for that long.

The airlines, however, say that long delays are rare and result mostly from bad weather and a backed-up air-traffic-control system. They warn that forcing them to return planes to terminals after three hours could often make matters worse.

“Such a rule would result in numerous unintended consequences that ultimately will create inconveniences for passengers and lead to more flight cancellations,” says David Castelveter, vice president of the Air Transport Association of America, which represents U.S. airlines.

Babies were crying

The USA TODAY analysis of delays that the airlines report to the Transportation Department finds that long delays are rare. Between October and May, when 19 big airlines operated 4.3 million domestic flights, the 577 delays of three hours or more translated into a rate of 1.35 flights per every 10,000.

That’s of little consolation to passengers such as Dwin, 38, who says he had little room to get up and stretch. Two disabled passengers in his row made it difficult to leave his seat. But, he says, “The most frustrating thing was that no one from United gave accurate information about the situation or showed any remorse.”

United’s Robin Urbanski says Dwin and his fellow passengers were stuck in the plane because of bad weather and the plane’s loss of power steering. “As a goodwill gesture,” she says, passengers were offered frequent-flier miles or a discount off a future flight.

Dwin’s experience wasn’t nearly as bad as what Nancy Whitehead of Orange, Calif., says she and seven family members and friends endured on a delayed Delta Air Lines (DAL) flight from the Turks and Caicos islands of the Caribbean to Atlanta on April 10.

The flight from the British territory was unable to land because of bad weather in Atlanta. It was diverted to Columbia, S.C., for refueling. There, passengers sat on the plane for at least five hours because of weather, a flight crew that reached its duty-time limits and no U.S. Customs facilities to process any passengers who might want off the flight to make other travel arrangements.

Whitehead, 43, an office manager at an elementary school, says passengers weren’t served any food or drink. Toilets backed up, she says, adults got angry, and babies were crying.

Eventually, she says, passengers were allowed to leave the plane and led to a small room at the terminal that had few chairs. Security guards kept an eye on them, security tape blocked access out of the room, she says, and no food was available.

Passengers spent an hour in the hot and humid room before they were moved to another area in the terminal where food could be bought. About 2½ hours later, Whitehead says, passengers boarded the plane for a flight to Atlanta. Then, she says, they had to wait another hour after the pilot announced that one fuel tank had more fuel than another.

Ed Stewart, a Delta spokesman, says the airline has been unfairly criticized for the incident, which was reported by newspaper, TV and air travel websites.

“Multiple strong storm systems” kept the plane from taking off from Columbia, Stewart says. By law, he says, Delta couldn’t let passengers off because it was an international flight under the control of U.S. Customs.

Of big airlines, Delta had more long delays (81) than others between October and May, a USA TODAY analysis of the data compiled by the Department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics show. Continental was next, with 72. ExpressJet Airlines had 93 delays on Continental Express (CAL) flights, more than any other carrier.

Like the Delta flight that Whitehead was stranded on, weather played a big role in many delays, and many occurred on the same days. Most delays on Continental and many Continental Express flights occurred on Dec. 10, for instance. That’s when “a freak snowstorm” hit Houston, says Continental spokeswoman Julie King.

Since then, King says, Continental has revised its procedures for long-delayed flights. It’s improving its de-icing capabilities in Houston and now gives passengers the option of getting off a plane after a three-hour wait.

Airlines blame traffic, too

Mechanical and other safety concerns also contribute to delays. And the airlines say crowded airports and backed-up traffic often make it impractical for pilots to return to terminals.

For example, a mechanical problem and bad weather caused a long delay of an American Eagle flight from Colorado Springs to Dallas on June 10. The plane’s air conditioning malfunctioned while waiting to land in bad weather in Dallas, and the aircraft was diverted to Wichita Falls, Texas. It waited there for 4½ hours until maintenance and weather issues were resolved.

Gordon McCracken, a filmmaker in Washington, D.C., says passengers were alarmed when smoke entered the cabin in-flight. On the ground in Wichita Falls, passengers were very cold because the air-conditioning problem caused frigid air to enter the cabin, he says.

American spokesman Tim Smith says airline mechanics found no signs of smoke, and passengers probably saw vapor caused by the cold air from the air-conditioning system. In Wichita Falls, passengers were given the option to get off the plane except for the nearly two hours before takeoff to Dallas, Smith says.

McCracken says the long delay cost him an opportunity to bid on the sale of the apartment he was renting.

American and most U.S. carriers “do not guarantee” passengers will arrive at the scheduled time, Smith says. “Any passenger with an extremely important reason or time to be somewhere should allow for the possibility of extreme delays, especially weather o
r air-traffic-control related,” Smith says.

When planes are backed up for takeoff or landing, there may be no empty gates or equipment available to deplane passengers, the airlines say.

“Because of the antiquated air-traffic-control system in which we — and every airline — operate, we’re restricted as to the operational improvements we can make,” says Bryan Baldwin, spokesman for JetBlue Airways.

Aviation consultant Michael Boyd says airline CEOs “should form a conga line” to the FAA, which oversees air travel, and demand the country’s air-traffic system be modernized. That could increase airspace capacity and reduce the number of waiting planes.

‘All about profit’

The airlines aren’t blameless, other aviation consultants say. They overschedule flights at hub airports, which creates a situation in which there are too many planes and not enough gates, says Barbara Beyer, CEO of Avmark, an airline consulting company.

Fredrick Foreman of Metron Aviation, who wrote an April report on long ground delays for the FAA, says it’s all about money.

“Airlines don’t want to deplane passengers because they will lose money,” Foreman says. “It’s not about weather — it’s all about profit motive.”

The airlines oppose a hard and fast law that forces them to let passengers off planes that are stranded three hours or more. They prefer letting the airlines decide, says Castelveter of the Air Transport Association.

Forcing planes to return to the gate to let passengers off after three hours “would be highly disruptive to airport and airline operations,” he says. “Airlines need operational flexibility in order to get passengers, crewmembers and aircraft to their destinations.”

The American Society of Travel Agents initially agreed with the airlines, but now supports congressional action.

Paul Ruden, the society’s senior vice president, was on a Transportation Department task force last year that recommended airlines keep passengers informed about delays and establish time limits at each airport for deplaning passengers. But that hasn’t worked, he says, and Congress now needs to set “a clear standard for the airlines to follow.”

Contributing: Barbara Hansen

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