Mega-delays continue despite airline promises; it’s time to act.

This April, when a Delta Air Lines flight from the Caribbean to Atlanta was diverted to Columbia, S.C., because of bad weather, passengers endured a five-hour wait sealed in the plane with crying babies, smelly toilets and insufficient food and water. When they finally were allowed to deplane, the irate fliers were initially held in a small room with a few chairs, passenger Nancy Whitehead recently told USA TODAY’s Gary Stoller. And when they re-boarded with high hopes of heading to Atlanta, they were delayed again by a refueling problem. All told, the flight was about 10 hours late.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The nightmare on Delta, complicated by the fact that it was an international flight and passengers had to clear U.S. Customs, is simply one of the more recent mega-delay horror stories.

After a couple of highly publicized incidents more than two years ago — when fliers were stuck for nearly 10 hours on a JetBlue flight in an ice storm at New York’s Kennedy International and for eight hours on an American Airlines jet diverted to Midland, Texas — the airline industry and government officials promised to do more for passengers trapped on tarmacs for hours on end.

So how has the industry responded? With failed promises to fix the problem, and successful lobbying to block congressional action.

Congress has done so little to help that its members might as well have been stranded on a plane for the past two years. Last month, a Senate committee finally approved a measure that would require airlines to deplane passengers after three-hour tarmac delays, unless the pilot deems it unsafe or the flight could take off within 30 minutes. The House, meanwhile, has approved a limp provision that would do little to force change.

It’s true that such delays are relatively rare and often beyond the airlines’ control. Even so, they happen often enough to deserve a solution. Since January 2007, 200,000 domestic passengers have been stuck on 3,000 planes for three hours or more waiting to take off or taxi to a gate, according to Stoller’s analysis of government data.

You’d think that bad publicity, competitive pressures and lobbying by, a consumer group founded by a passenger stranded two years ago, would have been enough to force meaningful action by the airlines. But as the Delta delay suggests, more is needed.

Continental Airlines says it is now using movable stairs and vehicles to deplane passengers after three hours. On June 18, at Newark Liberty airport, one passenger who asked to deplane when thunderstorms stranded a flight was able to do so, according to a spokesman. If Continental can provide this service, it’s hard to see why everyone else can’t, too.

Two years is long enough to wait for voluntary action. With a shove from Congress, odds are the industry will fix this problem faster than you can say “stranded passenger.”

Posted at 12:21 AM/ET, August 04, 2009 in USA TODAY editorial