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A passenger bill of rights.

Byline: The Register-Guard

It's a familiar story: Forty-seven passengers stuck overnight Saturday on a 50-seat Continental Express jet after the plane was diverted because of bad weather from its original Twin Cities destination to Rochester, Minn.

For six hours, the miserable passengers sat sealed in a metal tube, enduring smelly toilets, crying babies, a shortage of blankets and pillows, no food or drinks, and lousy ventilation.

It could have been worse - and it has been.

On Valentine's Day in 2007, hundreds of fliers were stuck for nearly 10 hours on a JetBlue flight in an ice storm at New York's Kennedy International. A couple of months earlier, after lightning storms blitzed American Airlines' hub at Dallas/Fort Worth International, the airline sent more than 100 flights to other airports, where passengers were stuck on board for up to nine hours.

After two years of debate, it's time for Congress to adopt regulations establishing a passenger bill of rights for lengthy tarmac delays.

A bill approved last month by a Senate committee would require airlines to let passengers off stranded planes after delays of three hours. The only exceptions would be if a pilot determines that deplaning would be unsafe or if it appears the flight can take off within 30 minutes.

While planes are stuck on the tarmac, airlines would be required to provide food, water, restrooms, ventilation and medical services.

The airlines say that lengthy delays are uncommon and usually are prompted by storms or other circumstances that are beyond their control.

That's true, but the airlines have yet to make the changes necessary to make those infrequent delays more tolerable for passengers. USA Today recently reported that 577 flights - roughly 1.35 for every 10,000 departures - were delayed on tarmacs for three hours or more between October 2008 and May 2009.

The airlines oppose the Senate bill, arguing that deplanings increase the likelihood of flight cancellations and create more disruptions for passengers. They also say icy conditions could make unloading a jet on the tarmac, when no gate is available, unsafe for passengers.

None of those arguments ring true. Airlines surely can find ways to avoid canceling flights because of deplaning delays, and odds are good the passengers on last weekend's stranded Continental Express flight would dearly have loved the "disruption" of unloading. As for icy tarmacs, the airlines should be able to clear paths for passengers or provide ground transportation to take them to terminals.

The airlines have had enough time to fix this problem. Now, it's Congress' turn.
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 13, 2009
Previous Article:Don't worry, granny's safe.

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