HOUSTON -- It's a question asked by thousands of desperate airline passengers every year who end up trapped onboard grounded planes for hours on end, waiting for a takeoff that sometimes never comes: Why can't the plane just return to an airport gate so passengers can at least stretch their legs?
Now some leaders in Congress are asking as well, after two recent weather ordeals involving dozens of planes that sat on tarmacs for more than eight hours before finally returning to gates to release their captive passengers.
Lawmakers in the House and the Senate are drafting bills that would create a new "airline passengers' bill of rights" that, among other things, would require planes delayed on the ground more than three hours to allow passengers to get off and airlines to provide passengers with frequent updates about delays, and require disclosure of information about chronically delayed or canceled flights.
"Passengers should not be held on an airplane for hours and hours on end," Rep. Mike Thompson, a California Democrat, said Friday as he described a set of minimum standards he is proposing that sounded like a prescription directed at a Third World country. "My bill requires that airlines provide every passenger with food, safe drinking water, sanitary bathroom facilities, adequate ventilation and a reasonable temperature while the plane is delayed."
Such a law, if it had been in force last week, might have spared hundreds of Jet Blue passengers the ordeal they suffered while stranded on the tarmac at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport during a Valentine's Day ice storm. Some passengers were held for 10 hours inside planes with foul air, fouler toilets, little food and less information. Jet Blue officials later apologized for the "unacceptable" delays.
That incident followed a Dec. 29 weather-related debacle in Texas, when a series of strong thunderstorms forced Dallas-based American Airlines to divert 121 planes to alternate airports. Nearly half of the planes sat on tarmacs for more than three hours.
One flight, from San Francisco to Dallas-Fort Worth, was diverted to Austin, where it sat on the ground for more than eight hours before it was finally canceled and passengers were allowed inside the airport terminal - only to find concession stands closed, their baggage missing and hotel rooms filled.
Inside the plane, passengers recalled that they had been offered bags of peanuts and water from the restrooms, where some of the toilets were overflowing.
"There was a woman who was having to make diapers out of torn-up T-shirts for her baby," said passenger Tim Hanni, a Napa, Calif., resident who together with his wife, Kate, launched a blog and an online petition calling for passage of a new passengers' bill of rights. "The tipping point for the traveling public's anger over these kinds of delays had already been reached. This incident has just nudged it over."
American Airlines officials apologized for the "regrettable events" that occurred that day and instituted a rule requiring that passengers be returned to an airport terminal if a flight is delayed more than four hours on the ground.
"This was an extraordinary circumstance, we have learned from it, and frankly we don't expect it to ever happen again," said airline spokesman Tim Wagner.
But statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation indicate that such extreme incidents, while rare, are not uncommon. Between 2000 and 2006, passengers have been held inside more than 330 airplanes for more than five hours while waiting to take off.
Nevertheless, airline industry officials strongly oppose any new rules that would require them to return grounded planes to the terminal after a certain number of hours, insisting that such decisions are best left to the discretion of pilots, ground crews and airline managers who need flexibility to deal with changing weather situations and flight congestion.
What's more, they say that returning a plane to a gate is rarely the simple solution it might seem, because in almost every case it means the flight must be canceled with no hope of eventually taking off. That's because airline crews run up against federal limits on how long they can be on duty and planes lose their takeoff slots. And canceled flights wreak havoc with passengers' plans and airline schedules.
"You have to keep in mind, if there is legislation that imposes inflexible standards on a carrier's operations, that easily could have the unintended effect of inconveniencing customers more in some situations," said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the airline industry's principal trade group. "It's not always the easy or the right choice to simply say after a period of time you have to go back to the gate."
Consumer experts note that when extreme flight delays do occur, the problems multiply because of the frenzied pace of today's airline marketplace. Airlines have squeezed out excess capacity so planes are flying with nearly every seat filled, meaning the toilets overflow faster. Few airlines serve meals, meaning there is no food onboard. Customer service has been pared back, meaning fewer gate agents are available to rebook or assist stranded passengers.
There is, in other words, much less margin for error.
"You get that many planes bunching up into an already bollixed-up system, add in bad weather, and somebody is going to pay a price," said Dean Headley, a marketing professor at Wichita State University who monitors airline quality. "It's that simple."
Howard Witt writes for the Chicago Tribune.