Prisoners on the Tarmac

Posted Aug. 20, 2009, at 6:43 p.m.

Once more, passengers have been cooped up for many hours in an airplane on the tarmac, with limited water and snacks and full toilets.

Although such long on-plane delays represent a tiny fraction of flights, these incidents, which are widely reported by the media, give the airline industry a black eye. This should be enough to ensure they remedy the problem. If they don’t, Congress has its own solution.

The latest forced layover took place shortly after Sen. Olympia Snowe and California Democrat Barbara Boxer had succeeded in getting the Passenger Bill of Rights included in the pending Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill. It has passed the Commerce Committee and awaits action by the full Senate.

Continental Express Flight 2816 left Houston at 9:53 p.m. on Aug. 7, scheduled to arrive in Minneapolis at midnight. On board the 50-seat plane were 47 passengers including a couple babies. Bad weather caused air controllers to divert the flight to Rochester, Minn., where it landed after midnight.

Waiting for clearance, the flight crew kept the passengers on the plane for six hours, although the terminal, where they could have stretched their legs, breathed fresh air and bought snacks and drinks at vending machines, was only 50 yards away. On the plane, snacks and drinks had run out and the single toilet was overflowing.

The weary and frustrated passengers were finally let off the plane at 6 a.m. After another 2½ hours, they reboarded the same plane with its smelly toilet and landed at Minneapolis nearly 12 hours after leaving Houston.

An airline spokeswoman said the passengers could not have gone to the terminal because the security screeners had gone home. The airport manager said the passengers could have waited in a secure area.

Sens. Snowe and Boxer seized on the incident as a new and urgent reason for Congress to pass the Passenger Bill of Rights. Sen. Snowe called the behavior of Continental Airlines inexcusable. The senators first introduced the bill in 2007 after a series of similar incidents. But the Airport Transport Association, of which Continental is a member, resisted it. A spokeswoman told The Associated Press that the group continues to believe the legislation “will ultimately end up inconveniencing passengers rather than helping them.”

If the FAA bill stalls, the two senators plan to press for a stand-alone bill that would do the same thing: force airlines to let passengers deplane after three hours on the ground; provide food, water, adequate restrooms and comfortable cabin temperature and ventilation.

It shouldn’t take federal legislation to stop these ordeals.

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