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As airlines fiddle, Congress tackles long waits on tarmac

Why can't they fix this?

Surely by now you've heard about the unfortunate 47 souls stuck on the tarmac inside a 50-seat Continental Express jet for about seven hours before dawn Saturday.

Odors wafted from the too-full toilet. There were no drinks or snacks, too few pillows and blankets. Travelers on the jet, diverted to Rochester, Minn., while en route from Houston to Minneapolis because of bad weather, finally got into the airport. Two and half hours later, they were put back on the smelly plane for the short hop to Minneapolis.

Sounds familiar? Maybe you remember JetBlue's Valentine's Day 2007 disaster. As snow and ice blanketed the Northeast, hundreds of people were stranded on the tarmac at JFK International in New York because JetBlue ran out of available gates.

A couple of months earlier, lightning storms shut down American's huge hub at Dallas-Fort Worth International. The airline sent more than 100 flights to other airports, where passengers were captive on board for up to nine hours.

Airlines put in new procedures. The Transportation Department's inspector general wrote a long report. A federally appointed task force of representatives from airlines, airports, travel and consumer groups studied "on-board flight delays" for a year and made nonbinding recommendations in November.

So, why can't they fix this?

About 200,000 domestic passengers have been trapped on about 3,000 planes for three hours or more while waiting to take off or taxi to a gate since January 2007, USA Today recently reported. In June, 278 flights had tarmac delays of three hours or more (thankfully, none at Tampa International Airport).

Prodded by a passenger-rights group, FlyersRights.org., Congress is advancing legislation that would let passengers off planes delayed on the ground.

A Senate committee last month voted to require that airlines return passengers to the gate after a three-hour delay. A House version of the bill would direct carriers to submit plans to the Transportation Department for letting travelers off long- delayed planes.

Airlines oppose a government rule. If a plane waiting to take off loses its place in line to return to the terminal, the crew might not be able to complete the flight within permitted duty hours, says David Castelveter, a spokesman for Air Transport Association, an airline trade group.

"It will force flights to cancel and passengers to be stranded" far from home, he says. On-board ground delays of three hours or more are unusual events — 1.35 flights out of every 10,000, according to the USA Today analysis.

Most occur in bunches during stormy weather, most often at airports using congested airspace in the Northeast. The best solution, airlines say, is a long-delayed, satellite-based air traffic control system that would let more planes fly in existing corridors.

But the airlines recently lost a travel industry ally. Paul Ruden, senior vice president of the American Society of Travel Agents, served on the task force and believed it when he heard airline officials insist they had a handle on the problem.

Last month, Ruden's group wrote Congress in support of setting time limits when passengers must be let off ground-delayed planes.

"I hoped the airlines would get it," he says. "Well, they don't."

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

As airlines fiddle, Congress tackles long waits on tarmac 08/11/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 8:37pm]
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