Air travelers' bill of rights is taking flight

Thanks to a California woman named Kate Hanni, it appears the odds are fairly good that Congress will finally pass a passenger bill of rights that will force the airlines to start treating their customers in a more humane manner.

The House of Representatives passed a bill last month that, among other things, would require planes to have adequate supplies of food and water and to return to the gate if stuck on a tarmac for three hours. The Senate is considering a similar bill that was introduced last spring after the infamous Valentine's Day fiasco in which an Aruba-bound JetBlue plane was stranded on the tarmac for 10 hours during an ice storm at New York's JFK International Airport.

The measure's supporters include Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who said shortly after it was introduced, "Many of us have had air travel experiences we'd like to forget, but nobody should have to be stranded on a runway for hours on end."

Unlike most airline passengers, Hanni doesn't just mutter a few choice words under her breath and walk away after a bad experience.

In fact, she was so incensed after being stuck on a grounded American Airlines flight for eight hours last December in Austin, Texas - the airline even refused to allow passengers to deplane for medical emergencies, she says - that she formed the Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights, which now has 17,000 members and is pressuring Congress to take action. (For more information, visit www.flyersrights.com.) To that end, the coalition held a highly publicized "Strand-in" last month on the National Mall at which dozens of people, including several members of Congress, squeezed into a mock airliner (a 28-by-12-foot tent) where they were treated to the soothing sounds of wailing babies and puzzling intercom messages that were piped in.

The participants included Zane Kelleher, a retired airplane pilot, who told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel that the group's demands were fully justified.

"These jets and their air-conditioning systems were never designed to load up passengers and sit somewhere for three or four hours," he said. "They are designed to load up passengers and get out of Dodge.

"When you talk about compounding issues - heat, lack of water and food, a claustrophobic environment - somebody's going to end up dying."

How bad have things gotten?

Though the airlines say long tarmac waits are still rare, there were an astounding 1,201 flights with "taxi out" times of three hours or more through July of this year, according to the Wall Street Journal. In 2006, there were a total of 1,296 flights that sat on tarmacs for at least three hours.

And those numbers, the paper noted, don't include flights that sat after being diverted to other airports or sat waiting to get to a gate after landing.

Moreover, a new federal report says nearly 30 percent of all flights were delayed in August.

In light of all this, Congress seems almost certain to pass some sort of passenger rights bill - although skeptics claim nothing will really change until the FAA takes a more active role (such as allowing planes to return to the terminal during long delays without giving up their place in line).

In the meantime, is there anything passengers can do to avoid being kept hostage for long periods of time?

Actually, there is. Carol Skornicka, senior vice president of corporate affairs, secretary and general counsel of Midwest Airlines, told me in an interview earlier this year that passengers are less likely to experience long tarmac delays if they fly out of less congested, midsized airports like General Mitchell Field in Milwaukee. Or better yet, smaller airports like Madison's.

And a check of statistics compiled by the Transportation Statistics Bureau shows that's true.

As of August, there were just two flights this year at Mitchell Field that had "taxi out" times of three hours or more, and just one at Dane County Regional Airport. There were 14 other flights that sat on the tarmac here for two hours, according to Sharyn Wisniewski, the airport's marketing and communications manager.

But those 15 long delays were out of 13,246 departures, she points out.

"Which is one-hundredth of one percent," she says. "So I guess Carol Skornicka is right."

Of course, one of the downsides of flying out of Madison is that, although the situation is improving, there are just 15 nonstop destinations. On the other hand "There's just a much greater jockeying of aircraft at the larger airports," Wisniewski notes. "And if you have any bad weather at all, you have all these airliners waiting to take off. And in some cases, they have only a few more runways than we do."

That's not to suggest Madison's airport never has problems, she says. But compared to everyone else, we look pretty darn good.


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