Spending seven hours trapped in a JetBlue airliner a tantalizingly short distance from the terminal amid angry fellow passengers and without food, water or access to restrooms would test the patience and temper of the most seasoned traveler. For subjecting 200 customers to the indignities endured on a horrific JetBlue flight last weekend, the airline should be held accountable and face the most severe financial penalties imposed by the federal government's new passenger bill of rights. In this case, the fine could run as high as $5 million. It's an early test of whether the new rules have the teeth to safeguard the rights of a traveling public already overburdened by escalating fees, overbooked flights and uncomfortable seats.
Last Saturday's ill-advised JetBlue Flight 504 from Fort Lauderdale to Newark, N.J., was diverted after a forecast massive snowstorm forced the aircraft to land at overwhelmed Bradley International Airport outside Hartford, Conn. The plane then forlornly sat on the ground for the next seven hours. In short order, as the captain pleaded with air controllers for help, the plane ran out of food and water, and the overtaxed lavatories soon failed. This was a perfect storm of airline incompetence and a massive failure in customer service.
In the wake of egregious similar delays in 2007, Congress passed an airline passenger bill of rights that went into effect last year. It calls for airlines to be fined $27,500 for each domestic passenger delayed on the ground for more than three hours. The law seems to have had a positive impact on carriers, with a 97 percent reduction in these excessive ground delays in the first year of the rules.
To be sure, the Federal Aviation Administration bears a portion of the blame for the JetBlue passengers' plight by ordering the plane to land at an airport incapable of handling a sudden influx of diverted flights. But the largest share of the blame falls to JetBlue, which knowingly allowed Flight 504 to take off into a forecast severe weather event. The airline callously disrupted the travel plans of its passengers and potentially put their lives at risk.
Because it so cavalierly put profits ahead of the well-being of its passengers, JetBlue should be required to pay the maximum $5 million in fines mandated by the federal guidelines. The severe sanctions would send a chilling message to other carriers to think twice about their customers and their bottom lines before going wheels up into a blizzard of greed.