Tarmac Torture

Sunday, August 16, 2009

IN THE ANNALS of "Flights From Hell," Continental Flight 2816 from Houston to Minneapolis isn't the most egregious. Let's not forget the Valentine's Day 2007 ice storm that trapped nine fully loaded JetBlue aircraft on the tarmac tantalizingly close to the terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York for six to 10 hours. But the Aug. 7 ordeal of 47 passengers whose plane had to set down in Rochester, Minn., because of bad weather is another reminder of the lack of common sense -- and the absence of regulations. The flight, operated by ExpressJet, was supposed to last less than three hours. Bad weather forced the plane to land at midnight to refuel just 85 miles from its final destination. Then the crew hit its legal limit on flying time. This forced the air carrier to fly in another pilot, co-pilot and flight attendant. All the while, the passengers sat on a plane that grew grimmer by the hour as babies cried, food and water ran out, and the plane's one toilet ceased to function.

The reasons for holding them hostage on the 50-seat cigar tube of a jet are in dispute. ExpressJet officials said the lack of security screeners at the Rochester airport forced them to keep the passengers on the plane. Not so, said airport officials: There was a way to get them into the terminal without compromising security. The passengers finally deplaned at 6 a.m. They arrived in Minneapolis aboard the same aircraft around 11 a.m., more than 13 hours after they'd left Houston.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has ordered an investigation. Continental says it is cooperating. And ExpressJet has said it is "thoroughly reviewing" what happened.

"Airline passengers have less rights than a prisoner of war per the Geneva Conventions once the door of the plane shuts," said Kate Hanni on MSNBC's "Morning Meeting" last week. She founded the advocacy group FlyersRights.org after being trapped on a plane for 13 hours in 2006. "They can hold you indefinitely and don't have to provide you any of your basic human needs by law."

The Transportation Department is close to issuing a final rule that would require, among other things, that airlines adopt contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays. Plans would have to specify the maximum delay the air carrier will permit and provision of adequate food, water and restrooms. A passenger bill of rights that would codify such regulations has languished in the Senate for two years. Unfortunately, this is one delay that has no end in sight.

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