washingtonpost.com
Tarmac delays ground the fight for passenger rights

By Christopher Elliott
Sunday, October 25, 2009

The approach of cold-weather season reminds me of tarmac delays.

Like the Northwest Airlines flights grounded during a 1999 blizzard at Detroit's Metro Airport, leaving passengers without water or working toilets for more than seven hours. Or the JetBlue Airways customers stranded for nearly half a day during an ice storm in New York back in 2007.

But what if those were the only memories that cold weather evoked?

No skiing. No eggnog. No chestnuts roasting on the open fire. That would be absurd, wouldn't it?

No more absurd than what has happened to the "passenger rights movement." In the past few months, a series of headline-grabbing tarmac delays has helped a couple of influential lobbyists convince the media and a few elected officials that tarmac delays are the No. 1 passenger rights problem in America.

Worse, they've convinced many travelers that tarmac delays are the only important passenger rights issue.

Don't believe me? Pull up any recent story that mentions a passenger's bill of rights, and it will inevitably refer to a proposal that would require a plane to turn back after a three-hour ground delay. I happen to disagree that such legislation would help anyone or that it could even be properly enforced, but that's beside the point.

The bigger question is whether this tunnel vision is helping the cause of airline passengers -- and how it might affect your next flight.

I think it goes without saying that other, far more important passenger issues are being overlooked. But I'll say it anyway: We're missing a lot. I asked author and consumer advocate Edward Hasbrouck to name his hot-button passenger rights issues, and alas, tarmac delays didn't make the list. What did? Truth in advertising, problems with federal preemption and failure to enforce existing consumer laws.

"Airlines routinely engage in practices that would constitute fraud if engaged in by any other business," he told me. For example, they sell tickets on partner airlines, giving the appearance that they are operating a flight, which is referred to as code-sharing.

Federal preemption of consumer protection laws, which allows airlines to ignore state consumer laws and consumer protection agencies, is another worry. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 opened that loophole, "and it has been a disaster for consumers," says Hasbrouck.

The U.S. Transportation Department's lack of involvement in consumer protection also ranks as a favorite, and it's an area of concern for me as a reader advocate. The way Hasbrouck sees it, the department is staffed by devout believers in a hands-off approach toward regulation and, specifically, enforcing consumer protections. "Those attitudes have got to go, which is unlikely to happen unless the people at the DOT get firm new marching orders from their superiors, either from the secretary of transportation or President Obama," he says.

Unlike tarmac delays, which affect a tiny fraction of air travelers, these issues factor prominently into everyone's flight. And that they are being ignored raises the question of who really benefits from the popular emphasis on aircraft delays, apart from a few media-savvy tarmac-delay activists.

I'm willing to bet that my friends in the airline industry, who insist that they oppose the new turn-back law, are quietly pleased that the tarmac lobby has hijacked the passenger rights cause. The movement is now conveniently contained, holding sparsely attended news conferences and pep rallies for passenger rights "stakeholders" in the Rayburn House Office Building.

That's not to say that the tarmac troopers don't have a valid point. There's no excuse for keeping a plane waiting for hours without giving passengers food or water. Anyone who has endured an extended delay on a plane can be forgiven for thinking it's the only thing that matters.

In the meantime, what do you do if you're stuck on a parked aircraft? Oddly, the media reports I've seen have fixated on the likelihood that a turn-back law will be passed -- it has a snowball's chance, in case you were wondering -- but have skipped the part where they help us actually fix the problem.

I had an enlightening conversation with Deborah McElroy, the executive vice president in charge of policy and external affairs at the Airports Council International-North America, an airport trade group, about the remedies available to stranded passengers. There are not many.

I've been asked whether there's an easy way off a parked plane, such as calling 911 and complaining that you're being held prisoner. McElroy said emergency calls are routed to local law enforcement agencies, which may pass your complaint along to airport police, but neither is likely to have the authority to force a jet to return. "Only the airport's federal security director, who is a [Transportation Security Administration] employee, has the legal right to order the plane back to the gate," she told me. You may be better off asking a crew member for help or, failing that, calling the airline.

Would a turn-back rule change anything? It might, she said. It might not. Meaning that the true cost of a passenger's bill of rights may not be just an unenforceable law, but also a long period of distraction from the truly important issues facing passengers.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and for the Consumer Travel Alliance, a new nonprofit education organization. This column will appear weekly in Travel, and Elliott will be joining the travel chat Mondays at 2 p.m. at http://www.washingtonpost.com/discussions. You may also e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company