Airlines Can Keep Passengers Prisoner 3 Hours
The federal government is placing limits on the ability of airlines to mistreat customers. They don’t go nearly far enough.
U.S. airlines could face stiff fines for stranding passengers aboard grounded planes for more than three hours, according to a regulation that officials said on Monday was aimed at upholding passenger rights. The Transportation Department initiative tries to address public and government frustration with lengthy runway delays, especially those that leave passengers without food, water or adequate bathroom facilities. “Airline passengers have rights, and these new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters.
For the first time, the government will require airlines to let passengers get off planes that have been at a gate or on a taxiway waiting to take off or get access to a terminal. Exceeding the three-hour limit could result in fines of up to $27,000 per passenger, the Transportation Department said. Airlines also would have to ensure that passengers get food, water and adequate bathroom facilities during long delays.
The decision to let passengers off planes rests with the captain, who could exceed the three-hour limit because of security or safety concerns. Crews could also keep people aboard if letting them off would disrupt air traffic.
The regulation would take effect just at the start of the spring and summer travel season, the worst for delays.
Major airlines, through their trade association, said they would comply even though they say it will lead to more canceled flights and more passenger inconvenience. “The requirement of having planes return to the gates within a three-hour window or face significant fines is inconsistent with our goal of completing as many flights as possible,” said Jim May, CEO of the Air Transport Association.
As regular readers know, my default position on federal regulation is skepticism. In most cases, though, customers who are unhappy with the way a business is treating them are free to walk away. That’s quite literally not the case here.
It’s bad enough when airlines fail to deliver on their contract to get passengers from point A to point B by a certain time. In many cases, the customer would not have agreed to the contract if they’d known that they would be delayed several hours. They’d have chosen to drive, instead. Or gone with a more competent carrier. Or left earlier. Something. By the time passengers find out they’re delayed, they’re powerless to chose other alternatives.
Sometimes, things happen. Tickets are sold months in advance and the weather can’t be predicted with accuracy. And whole airports — in rare cases, all the airports in sections of the country — sometimes get shut down through no fault of the carriers. I get that.
But why are airlines entitled to hold passengers prisoner?
More often than not, they know damned well that they aren’t taking off on time — or any time soon — when they start boarding. But even if they don’t, customers should have a right to get off the plane and get their money back once it becomes clear that the airline isn’t going to be able to deliver on their contract. What other business is allowed to simply trap customers for hours on end?
And who cares about the airlines’ “goal” of “completing as many flights as possible”? The goal that matters is that of the customers, not the business. Again, what other business is allowed to do this?