The Senate Commerce Committee last week approved the FAA reauthorization bill containing the bipartisan Boxer-Snowe Airline Passengers Bill of Rights which, among other protections, allows passengers the option to return to the terminal after sitting on the tarmac for three hours.

As one who was locked inside a sealed aircraft for nine hours in 2006, I know this legislation is long overdue. With no food, no water and overflowing toilets, it was a dreadful experience — and no way for the airline to treat its customers.

The airlines’ reaction?

Air Transport Association spokesman David Castelveter has called the three-hour limit “a hard-and-fast inflexible timeframe” that will result in “more cancellations and inconvenience.”

Since when do the lobbyists for commercial airlines care about passenger inconvenience?

“More” cancellations? As one who’s been through it, I can assure you that after nine hours on the tarmac, most of us could care less if our flight counted against cancellation statistics — nor were we in any mood to remain seated for the flight to our destination. Most of us just wanted to go back into the terminal so we could relieve ourselves, eat and book hotel rooms.

In any event, a September 2008 DOT Regulatory Impact Analysis concluded that, far from increasing cancellations, airlines’ awareness of deplaning costs for delayed flights could instead result in better flight management and improved operations overall.

As for the notion that three hours is a “hard-and-fast inflexible timeframe,” I’ll resist the easy temptation to challenge Mr. Castelveter to sit that long in the middle seat in coach without drinkable water or usable toilets.

The fact is, this bipartisan legislation gives maximum flexibility to airports and the airlines alike: Passengers will only be permitted to deplane if it can be done safely, and pilots may extend the time for 30 minutes if there’s a likelihood of immediate departure. Passengers may even choose to remain onboard — but if they do, they’ll be given the chance to change their minds every three hours.

ATA’s Castelveter has also claimed “great progress in reducing lengthy tarmac delays and improving service while on board as reflected in Transportation Department statistics.”

The operative words are “as reflected in Transportation Department statistics.” Those numbers don’t include the 1 million international flights originating in or departing from the U.S. each year, nor any of the smaller carriers that account for one domestic flight out of every four.

Yet setting aside all the flights the DOT excludes, passengers were still stranded on the tarmac for more than three hours on 1,232 flights in 2008 alone. That may represent progress to the airlines, but to their customers, it proves the need for an enforceable time limit.

Kate Hanni
Napa, Calif.

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