Tuesday, July 14, 2009

New Senate FAA Bill Sets 3-Hour Limit on Tarmac Delays

Tucked deep in the FAA reauthorization bill introduced in the Senate today is a provision that, if it stands, is guaranteed to give the screaming-meemies to the airline industry.

Under the topic "Option of deplaning," it requires airlines to allow passengers at their option to get off a plane that has sat on the tarmac for three hours after leaving the gate, or after landing without pulling into a gate.

The provision is radioactive to the airline industry, which has battled the evolving of the so-called passengers-rights movement led by California activist Kate Hanni, who was stranded on a parked plane for eight hours along with thousands of other passengers in late 2006.

So-called stranding incidents occurred with disturbing frequency throughout 2007 and 2008. Typically, passengers sat on parked planes as conditions deteriorated, without food, sometimes with toilets overflowing or not working, for up to 12 hours.

Hanni pushed relentlessly for the three-hour provision. The airline industry is pushing relentlessly to keep it from becoming law.

The stranding incidents have become infrequent in the last six months, as air travel demand has lessened and as some airlines have put better practices into place to head off the horrible publicity these situations brought (largely as a result of the indefatigable Hanni and the grassroots group she formed, the Coalition for an Airliner Passengers Bill of Rights.)

I've known Kate since she first started working on her lonely quest, trudging the halls of Congress in the winter of 2007. Consistently, I have told her that, while her efforts were clearly having results in focusing public and industry attention on the problem, there was no way she was ever going to get a federal law passed that requires airlines to bring a plane back to a gate under these circumstances. I now wonder if I have been dead wrong on that.

Here's a joint press release today from Sens. Barbara Boxer and Olympia Snowe, who were responsible for the passengers bill of rights provisions, including the three-hour rule, in the current FAA bill. Hanni worked closely with both senators on this.

The Senate bill now has to be reconciled with the House bill. Lobbying will intensify and the airline industry will call in chits to try to dislodge the passengers-rights provisions.

The airline industry, which was freed from most federal regulation in a landmark 1978 law, swore that the three-hour provision would never happen and mounted a huge lobbying effort against it.

It's the airlines' position that they themselves can fix the problems, and that well-established federal law prevents interference in their operations, other than for such matters as air-traffic control and safety. The airlines say that allowing a passenger to turn a plane back to a gate after three or more hours can cause chaos in flight schedules -- for example by causing planes to lose their place in takeoff queues during bad weather.

But there it is in the Senate version of the FAA reauthorization bill (which still has not become law). Three hours on the tarmac and sorry, back to the gate if a passenger demands it.

The exceptions are if a pilot "reasonably determines" that the plane will in fact take off within 30 minutes after the three-hour tarmac delay, or if the pilot cites a safety concern. Pilots themselves have expressed no organized opposition to the three-hour provision except to insist, quite correctly, that they are responsible for safety.

James May, the president of the Air Transport Association, testified against the three-hour rule and other proposed passengers-rights legislation during hearings on the FAA reauthorization bill. He said legislation was not necessary.

May said that the industry trade group had consistently maintained that airlines "would learn from the unusual and extreme events of December 2006 and February 2007" [when the most heavily publicized airline strandings incidents occurred]. Airlines, he said, would and did learn "how to better handle lengthy delay situations and improve the process to cancel flights."

We'll be hearing more from the airline industry on this, oh, I'd say any minute now.


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