Fliers' Remorse

Thursday, August 16, 2007

ATRIP to the airport these days is like going to the ninth circle of hell, where myriad aggravations await travelers. They have to practically strip down to their skivvies to get through security only to board planes that might be (a) late taking off, (b) late landing, (c) diverted to another airport, (d) stuck on the tarmac before takeoff, (e) stuck on the tarmac after landing or (f) all of the above -- assuming the flight wasn't canceled. And that's not even counting the possibility that their bags will have been lost.

According to a report on the performance of the airline industry from the Transportation Department, June was among the worst months on record. In all of 1995, when the department started keeping statistics on the number of late flights (measured by how much time elapses between push-back from the gate and wheels up), 443 flights were delayed three hours or more. In June 2007 alone, there were 462. Weather was a big culprit. But so was severe air traffic congestion, which we'll tackle in future editorials.

Through it all passengers have felt powerless. The most dramatic illustration of air rage came last Valentine's Day, when thousands of passengers in New York were trapped (some between six and 10 hours) on planes that ran low on food and water. Some of the planes were within eyeshot of the terminal. But thanks to a freak ice storm, they couldn't go anywhere because they were frozen to the tarmac. The customers' cries were heard on Capitol Hill.

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) have introduced a passenger bill of rights similar to one proposed by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.). Both would require that airlines provide adequate food, water and restrooms for passengers. They also would give passengers the right to get off the plane if they are stuck on a closed aircraft that has been sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours. Mr. Thompson's bill would require airlines to provide passengers with timely information about what's going on. The Boxer-Snowe bill would require air carriers to publicly post on their Web sites their chronically late flights. Both bills wisely avoid imposing financial penalties on the airline industry, which would be the legislative equivalent of pushing a drowning man underwater.

JetBlue Airways became the poster child for everything wrong with the industry last February. Never mind that some of the other big carriers had similar problems, if not worse. But the airline that built its business on great customer service voluntarily instituted its own customer bill of rights less than a week after the debacle. Would that its competition did the same. Congress isn't well positioned to legislate precisely how many hours an aircraft should be allowed to wait on the tarmac. But minimum standards set by Congress for treatment and, especially, information sharing would give passengers a modicum of control and ease their suffering.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company