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Air passengers need a break

Ordeal could build support for the proposed air passengers' bill of rights

By MSN Money Aug 13, 2009 1:24PM

Continental Airlines' offer of refunds and travel vouchers to the 47 people kept overnight on a grounded commuter plane wouldn't fly with Linda Maddox if she had been one of those passengers.


"Oh yeah, what I want from you now is a VOUCHER for another flight, so I can get trapped in another one of your cans ... again. Give me a refund, and I'll call a cab," Linda, who is claustrophobic, commented at The Two-Way blog at NPR.

Could this latest outrage be the one that breaks the opposition to the proposed air passengers' bill of rights?


"If senators don't think the air-travel bill is as important as health care and some other issues, maybe they should hold a town hall meeting with the 47 passengers who were forced to sit on a grounded airplane for six hours last weekend in Rochester, Minn.," opined Maine's Kennebec Journal.


Tom Belden said at Winging It, "Whatever, I suspect the chances of Congress actually adopting federal rules for treatment of airline customers during long tarmac delays just got a lot better with a tale from a flight this weekend."


Key among the provisions in the bill is one that BusinessWeek calls "the largest sticking point": "a three-hour time limit in the Senate version of the bill, which means passengers have the right to get off the plane after three hours unless the captain determines that it is unsafe to deplane or if he or she reasonably believes the flight will depart within the next 30 minutes."


You've probably heard the basic facts about the recent incident. The Continental Express flight left Dallas for Minneapolis-St. Paul, but was diverted to Rochester, Minn., because of very stormy weather, The Associated Press reported. As the sole toilet filled and the stench built up, people were forced to remain on the 50-seat plane for six hours with no food or water. Add to this scenario a couple of screaming babies.


Meanwhile, another airline bused its stranded passengers to Minneapolis, about 90 miles away. But not the hapless passengers on Flight 2816. They were finally allowed to deplane about 6 a.m., and continued their flight on the same aircraft -- toilet still full -- 2½ hours later.


According to, ExpressJet, which operated the flight, initially said the passengers couldn't go into the airport because TSA employees had gone home for the night. Au contraire, said Rochester Airport manager Steven Leqve: Passengers could have been confined to an area secured by locked doors. Meanwhile, TSA issued a statement saying the airline could have asked for after-hours officers if need be.

"It wasn't an airport issue. It was strictly Continental's," Leqve said.


"It," passenger Link Christin told AP, "felt like you were trapped in a cave underground."


Continental eventually said: "We recognize that service provided to customers on this flight was completely unacceptable."


Is legislation the answer here? Airline promises don't seem to be enough. The Airline Biz blog said Continental Airlines president and COO Jeff Smisek made this statement in January:

Finally, we are implementing a new internal policy for 2009, whereby we will give customers the opportunity to get off an airplane during tarmac delays in excess of three hours, subject of course to making sure we can do that safely.

But not just the airline industry says a bill of rights would be overkill. Airline Biz relays a scenario from travel expert Terry Trippler on how the proposed law could backfire: What if some passengers wanted to get off the plane but others didn't, etc.?  (You can read it here if you missed the earlier link.)

William Swelbar of Swelblog also argues that a bill of rights would have unintended consequences. "Now I will add that in order to wait out a delay, there is a rightful expectation of a fully functioning aircraft and onboard amenities that allow a bearable experience," he said.


Related reading:

Frequent fliers: Mad as hell and not taking it anymore?

Is airline policy for obese passengers fair?

7 tips for getting free airline vouchers

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