Thursday, July 12, 2007

Tarmac Madness

Kate Hanni

In the past, I've been pretty careful about not using the word "tarmac" to describe the ramps and around airport gates and the taxiways beyond.

The only time I have used it is in a quote, and even then, I get angry e-mails from scolds who tell me (I know, I kn0w) that tarmac is a paving material (I would assume one of those unfortunate products that's lost its trademark through generic overuse).

But every pilot I talk to, and I've been talking to a lot lately, uses the word "tarmac."

And so the headline stands. Tarmac. Yes, I know it's a paving material.

Kate Hanni uses it, as in "We were stuck on the tarmac for over eight hours" and "They were stuck on the tarmac for 10 hours."

In her case, it was in Austin in late December, when weather diverted scores of American Airlines planes from Dallas and sent them to alternate airports in the region, where many of them sat for five hours and more with no access to a departure gate. Food ran out, toilets overflowed, people got sick.

Yada yada. By now, you know the story because it's been repeated so often in airports all over the country in the last six months: Passengers stranded for 4,6,8 10 and even 12 hours on planes that just sit there, unable to find a gate or return to one, while the airline does nothing.

The airlines say they can't do much, because there is no slack in the system, especially when weather (or anything that can be remotely blamed on weather) causes planes to pile up on departure, or diverts them from a hub to an outlying airport, or causes the airline to cancel a flight outright. Flight cancellations have been running at record levels recently, and overall delays are worse by far than ever.

With "no slack" in the system (and most airplanes are now flying with every seat full) the airlines say, if we let you off the plane waiting in Austin we lose our place in line for takeoff -- and you might end up spending a night or two in the airport, in a Red Cross cot if you're lucky, till another seat becomes available. Plus it costs us money, and we're barely profitable, the airlines say.

As an economic argument, that has some validity, given the stripped-down, short-circuited air-traffic system the airlines have rendered unto us.

But with the sheer volume of stranded passengers and their colorful experiences being held hostage to an airline's operational convenience, the economic is becoming the political. There is growing clamor for federal legislation to address the problem because the airlines, on their own, have no desire, or incentive, to.

After all, they're already sold out. What do they care.

"The airlines have no intention of making a firm commitment of when they need to let people off a plane. Period," says Ms. Hanni, whose husband, Tim Hanni, is a world known wine and food expert.

After being stranded so long in December, Kate basically quit her Napa, Calif., real estate business and began rounding up a posse. She has worked full time, unpaid, as a grassroots organizer pushing for a federal passenger bill of rights.

There is some momentum. Watered-down versions of a passengers bill of rights are lumbering along in both the House and the Senate, with supporters trying to navigate around the legislative IEDs the airline lobbyists are energetically planting along the way.

Gone missing from those bills is the key provision in the draft legislation that Ms. Hanni and her fellow-travelers want: A requirement that says an airline must let passengers off after they've been stuck on a parked plane for more than three hours.

Too expensive to even consider adding enough ground and operational capacity to accommodate that onerous requirement, the airlines and their friends in Congress say. That would mean adding costs to the system -- higher fares! It's common wisdom that higher fares is a non-starter.

"None of us have said we wouldn't mind paying a little more for a ticket," Ms. Hanni says. "All we're saying is let us off the damned plane."

The most recent time I spoke to her was the other day, when she was in Washington again, working the halls of Congress. Since January, Ms. Hanni has made 13 trips from San Francisco to Washington. Suppporters sometimes chip in for her fare and a cheap hotel that now knows her well and looks after her.

Throught sheer dint of personality, Ms. Hanni has got herself frequetly on national television, on cable news, on radio and in many newspapers since I first spoke to her in January.

This much exposure comes with a risk, I know. Editors become wary of the amateur with a cause who appears to crave the the spotlight a wee bit, though God knows they don't seem to be wary of the profesional media gas-bags who keep showing up bloviating on this or that, ad infinitum. I mean, Jayzus, would someone please explain George Will to me?

And let someone like Kate Hanni laboriously hack her way into the congressional jungle on a populist hot-button issue like stranded passengers, and sure enough a safari of dissipated Naderites will be following along in their harrumphing, baggage-ladden band-wagon, hopelessly confusing everyone as to what's up. And the next thing you know, the legislation has a provision demanding the immediate release from prison of the Philadelphia cop-killer and crackpot chronic cause celebre Mumia Abu Jamal.

So let's give Ms. Hanni an opportunity for some clarity.

If you're interested in the issue, she and her compatriots pushing for a passengers bill of rights have two online sites. One is and the other is There's more information on the Blogspot one.

Here is the text of the proposed (and now battered-in-Congress) legislation:

"All American air carriers shall abide by the following standards to ensure the safety, security and comfort of their passengers:

--Establish procedures to respond to all passenger complaints within 24 hours and with appropriate resolution within 2 weeks.

--Notify passengers within ten minutes of a delay of known diversions, delays and cancellations via airport overhead announcement, on aircraft announcement, and posting on airport television monitors.

--Establish procedures for returning passengers to terminal gate when delays occur so that no plane sits on the tarmac for longer than three hours without connecting to a gate.

--Provide for the essential needs of passengers during air- or ground-based delays of longer than 3 hours, including food, water, sanitary facilities, and access to medical attention.

--Provide for the needs of disabled, elderly and special needs passengers by establishing procedures for assisting with the moving and retrieving of baggage, and the moving of passengers from one area of airport to another at all times by airline personnel.

--Publish and update monthly on the company’s public web site a list of chronically delayed flights, meaning those flight delayed thirty minutes or more, at least forty percent of the time, during a single month.

--Compensate “bumped” passengers or passengers delayed due to flight cancellations or postponements of over 12 hours by refund of 150% of ticket price.

--The formal implementation of a Passenger Review Committee, made up of non-airline executives and employees but rather passengers and consumers – that would have the formal ability to review and investigate complaints.

--Make lowest fare information, schedules and itineraries, cancellation policies and frequent flyer program requirements available in an easily accessed location and updated in real-time.

--Ensure that baggage is handled without delay or injury; if baggage is lost or misplaced, the airline shall notify customer of baggage status within 12 hours and provide compensation equal to current market value of baggage and its contents.

--Require that these rights apply equally to all airline code-share partners including international partners."

Meanwhile, a bill to address in-cabin health and safety on stranded planes was introduced in the New York State legislature by Assemblyman Michael Gianaris and moved quickly through passage in both houses. It is now headed to the Governor, who is expected to sign it.

A state can't legislate certain things, like when an airline must let people go. It's limited in scope to clear health and safety issues, in this case in-cabin conditions. Here is a link to a summary of the New York State bill.


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