Air travelers trapped, again

Air travelers trapped, again

November 3rd, 2011 in Opinion Free Press

Passengers trapped for long hours in an airplane on the tarmac was supposed to be a thing of the past in the United States. That, at least, was the impetus for a new law to protect passengers' rights. That was theory. In practice, the rules don't seem to work so well. Just ask the travelers trapped in planes without adequate food, water or acceptable sanitary facilities for up to 10 hours on a Connecticut runway last weekend.

There were, of course, extenuating circumstances, but that's more an excuse than an explanation for the passengers' treatment. Airlines and airports are supposed to be prepared for events that detrimentally affect travelers. Events in Hartford suggest there is much work left to be done if the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, effective last August, is to truly protect air travelers.

The situation there was familiar. An unusual weather event -- an early-season snowstorm -- forced the diversion of nearly two dozen flights from the New York City-area to Hartford. The resultant crush of planes and passengers made it difficult for the airport to process equipment and people. Some planes were lost, so to speak, in the ensuing chaos. A JetBlue flight was the most egregious example.

Shunted to a distant runway, the plane was soon blocked from the terminal by later-arriving flights. Power outages in the region made the situation worse. That's no excuse for the seven-plus hours the JetBlue passengers endured on a plane where sanitary facilities were quickly overwhelmed and water and food ran out. Even a passenger's medical emergency, promptly reported to the tower by the plane's pilot, failed to elicit help. Paramedics eventually arrived to assist the ill passenger and to help others aboard deplane.

Not all diverted passengers were stranded once they landed in Hartford. Some passengers were moved from tarmac to terminal in a timely manner. Many were not, though, and that violates the new law, which stipulates that U.S. airlines must -- not should -- provide food and water to passengers no later than two hours after a delay starts, that bathrooms must work and that medical help be available when needed while a plane is on the tarmac. Those standards were not met in many instances on Saturday.

JetBlue has been through this before. Its stranding of passengers for nearly half a day on a New York City runway during a 2007 storm prompted the new legislation. It, and other airlines, now face millions in fines for Saturday's violations. More than fines are needed, though.

Strengthening current airline-airport rules to require contingency plans for emergency situations should be mandated. Most European airports have such plans and regularly practice them. The United States should follow suit. Air travelers in this country certainly would benefit from their implementation.