WASHINGTON — Passenger rights advocates pressed lawmakers Tuesday to pass a proposal that would require airlines to let travelers off a plane if it were delayed more than three hours on the tarmac.
Speaking at a packed hearing in Washington, they said that long delays were not just an inconvenience but a potential health risk, citing a 2007 World Health Organization study that found that the risk for developing conditions such as a pulmonary embolism doubled after four hours of immobility in a seat.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told the crowd that the three-hour time limit and requirements that airlines provide basic services like food and water during long flight delays would soon become law because of increasing support in Congress and among consumer and business groups.
The requirements, similar to those in a provision already approved in the House, is contained in a reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration now before the Senate.
The legislation makes an exception for occasions when the pilot believes that the plane will take off in the next half-hour or that it might be hazardous to leave the plane.
Though such mishaps occur on hundreds of flights a year, the airline industry says they represent a minuscule percentage of flights.
David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Assn., which represents the nation's biggest airlines, said the proposed law could have unintended consequences.
"I think of the unaccompanied child who will be stranded in a strange city because a few people want to get off the plane," Castelveter said.
Various reports over the years of passengers being denied or asked to pay for food and water were rare "missteps," he said.
Robert Crandall, former chief executive of American Airlines, said that instituting a three-hour limit would result in a deluge of passengers canceling flights.
Citing American Airlines statistics, Crandall said that without a proper phase-in, the time limit would result in more than 6,000 passengers in a six-month period being forced to create alternative plans.
Crandall, who said he supported the legislation overall, proposed starting at four hours and moving to three in 2011.
Boxer and fellow Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota threatened to filibuster any amendment that would strike out the consumer protections from the FAA legislation.
"We would talk as long as every passenger was left sitting on their flights," Klobuchar said.