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Winging It: Congress likely to regulate long 'tarmac delays'

If you've ever been trapped for hours in a narrow metal tube sitting on an airport tarmac, you probably are a strong proponent of federal legislation that would establish an airline passenger bill of rights.

If you've ever been trapped for hours in a narrow metal tube sitting on an airport tarmac, you probably are a strong proponent of federal legislation that would establish an airline passenger bill of rights.

That has never happened to me, so I don't have deep personal animosity toward an airline that made me suffer, or toward airlines in general. I can even be sympathetic to an airline that delivered me late because of bad weather, if the carrier kept me fully informed about how it was handling the situation and when I might finally get to my destination.

But it is likely Congress, after two years of debate on the issue, will adopt regulations this fall setting specific standards airlines have to meet to deal with "tarmac delays" of three hours or more.

Airlines would have to provide adequate food, water, restroom facilities, ventilation, and medical services to stranded passengers. The captain of an aircraft could extend the wait for takeoff by two 30-minute increments beyond three hours, if she or he thinks there is a reasonable chance the flight will actually depart. After that, the flight would have to return to the terminal.

Most air travelers will recall why Congress has been motivated to act. In the winter of 2006-07, there were two widely reported instances of passengers, first on American Airlines just after Christmas and then on JetBlue Airways on Feb. 14, enduring eight hours or more of imprisonment on delayed or diverted flights.

Although it wasn't as widely reported at the time, some travelers trying to leave Philadelphia International Airport on Feb. 14, 2007, were caught in the same icy winter storm that grounded dozens of JetBlue planes at Kennedy airport in New York.

Several US Airways passengers here complained to me in the following days that the media had failed to report that they, too, had been held hostage for more than six hours on one particular flight.

Passengers who lived through these ordeals probably now follow one of the basic rules of getting on any airliner these days: Bring your own water and food, and if traveling with an infant, extra diapers.

Since those incidents in 2006 and 2007, there have been fewer tarmac delays that grabbed the media's attention, but they still happen. A recent analysis by USA Today of Department of Transportation statistics found that 577 flights, or about 1.35 for every 10,000 departures, were delayed on the ground for three hours or more between October 2008 and May 2009.

The airlines have lobbied hard in Washington the last two years against the proposed passenger bill of rights. They did the same a decade ago when there was a similar effort to pass legislation after thousands of Northwest Airlines passengers were stranded on planes during a winter storm at the Detroit airport.

The 1999 movement to legislate resulted in airlines' voluntarily adopting policies they contended at the time were all that was needed to deal with the problem. But the more recent long tarmac delays, and travelers' tales of how the airlines handled some of the situations, indicate that the problem hasn't gone away.

The airlines' stand against the current legislation, as voiced by their trade group, the Air Transport Association, is based on reasonable arguments.

If a plane must return to an airport gate after a three-hour ground delay, the carriers say, it's likely the flight will be canceled, causing even more disruption for passengers and the airline's operations than a very late arrival would. Trying to safely unload a jet on an icy tarmac because no gate is available at the terminal, is another reason not to have hard-and-fast rules, they say.

The airlines' association also contends the DOT statistics show that long tarmac delays are so rare that they don't warrant government oversight.

That argument goes to the point I started the column with. Kevin P. Mitchell, chairman of the Radnor-based Business Travel Coalition, put it this way: "It may be statistically irrelevant, but if my 90-year-old grandma was stuck on an airplane for three hours, I don't care what the statistics are."

Mitchell, who has supported the airlines' stand against passenger-rights legislation in the past, now is surveying coalition members to see what they think. He plans to take a position in September on behalf of the coalition and other consumer groups.

This much is clear to me at this point: The proposed legislation has significant public support and stands a good chance of being adopted. For that the airlines have no one to blame but themselves.

Besides seeming to dismiss tarmac delays as no big deal, some carriers provide passengers scant information and treat them with all the grace of prison guards during their ordeals.

In other words, some airlines have not abided by the voluntary customer-service plans they adopted 10 years ago, and the whole industry may now pay the price.

Last week's column on remedies for jet lag left out one commercial program that some of you will find helpful in dealing with the problem. Not surprisingly, I forgot that I wrote about it for The Inquirer in 1991, giving it good marks for how well it worked.

The program is StopJetLag (it was called Jet-Ready 18 years ago). For $35, you get a diet plan and other advice customized for your itinerary. More information is available at