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On the Spot: Until passenger rights become law, prepare for delays on flights

February 08, 2009|CATHARINE HAMM

Question: I recently was on a flight that was scheduled to depart from New York's JFK at 6:45 p.m. but didn't take off until 11:45 p.m. We were held hostage on the airplane for several hours, during which no beverage or food service was offered. (Water was available at the back of the plane if you got up and went back there and asked for it.) We were not allowed to buy food nor were we allowed to exit the aircraft. Once we finally took off, we had only one beverage service; food was available for purchase, but it ran out. The whole experience suggests that we need a passenger bill of rights. What's the status of that legislation?

Lloyd Mansfield


Answer: Before I answer Mansfield's question about legislation -- and yes, there is news about a passenger rights bill by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) -- let me say this again: Do not get on an airplane without something to eat, something to drink (which you'll have to buy in the so-called sterile area) and something to take your mind off your troubles, whether it's an iPod, a great book or a pen and pad (or a laptop with a good, healthy battery) for writing the modern version of "The Aeneid."

Because let's face it, folks, flying these days isn't exactly poetry in motion.

But it could improve under the Boxer-Snowe bill, introduced last month.

One of the components is a three-hour limit on tarmac-sitting. (There's an optional 30-minute extension.)

As with any legislation, it has its proponents and opponents.

Kate Hanni is executive director of, founded soon after her Dec. 29, 2006, flight from San Francisco to Dallas. It was diverted to Austin, Texas, where the plane and its passengers sat for nine hours.

The bill may sound familiar because it's been tried, and it died. But, Hanni said, this bill contains some of the best provisions of all its other legislative kin, and she thinks with the new makeup of Congress, this one could pass.

And needs to, she says.

"Without some kind of a mandate and penalties, we don't believe that the airlines will change," she says.

But David Castleveter of the Air Transport Assn., which represents the airlines, thinks carriers have changed and improved. "So much of what Congress is proposing already is being done," he said in an e-mail. "On the other hand, a mandatory three-hour deplaning rule would have many unintended consequences that would harm -- not benefit -- the traveling public."

It seems a simple matter that if people are on a plane, they need to get off a plane if they've run out of food and water and the toilets are overflowing. But as with most things in life, what seems simple rarely is. This one involves airport logistics, security, labor issues and more.

On the other hand, isn't it just common sense that people confined are people unhappy?

And unhealthy, Hanni said. I asked her what it would take to get Congress to act.

"A body bag," she replied.


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