Holiday travelers who plan to reach their destinations by air this weekend can expect some delays due to weather. But no one should have to endure sitting in a cramped cabin aboard an aircraft stranded on the runway for hours before their flight even begins.
That's why consumers should welcome federal regulations issued Monday by the Obama administration that limit the time planes can spend on the tarmac waiting to take off without providing passengers with adequate food, water, medical care and usable rest rooms. The new regs, which go into effect early next year, impose stiff penalties on airlines that violate the limits - up to $27,000 per passenger - in an effort to force operators to clean up their acts.
Tales of air travelers marooned for hours on the runway because of bad weather have become increasingly common - as have efforts by lawmakers and passengers' rights advocates to combat such delays.
In August, a Continental Airlines commuter jet bound for Minneapolis-St. Paul was stranded on a runway in Rochester, N.Y., for nearly six hours after being diverted there due to weather; passengers had to remain aboard the whole time, even though the aircraft's toilets were no longer working. And last Saturday, during the heavy snowfall that blanketed the region, an Air Jamaica flight at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport sat on the runway awaiting takeoff from 8:35 a.m. until nearly 3 p.m. before finally returning to the gate.
The airlines charge that the new rules will lead to more cancellations and complicate already tight scheduling protocols that determine the time pilots can spend in the cockpit as well as posted departure and arrival times.
But U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the airlines owe passengers a safe, comfortable flight whatever the weather conditions are and that the government has an obligation to ensure travelers aren't subjected to unreasonably lengthy delays.
Statistics compiled by Mr. LaHood's department show there were some 1,500 flights that were delayed for more than three hours in 2007 and 2008. In the first six months of this year, the government reported 612 planes were delayed on the runway for three hours or more. The new regs require airlines to allow passengers to get off a plane that's delayed more than three hours and to offer food and water to those on planes delayed two hours or longer.
Even before the new rules were announced, the government had begun to crack down on airlines that left passengers stuck on planes during extended waits on the tarmac. In the Rochester incident, officials slapped a $175,000 penalty on Continental and two other airlines that played a role in that delay. Under the new rules, the airlines could have been liable for more than $1.2 million in penalties.
Congress is working on a comprehensive airline passenger bill of rights that, in addition to mandating how passengers are treated during delays, will codify airlines' responsibilities for everything from handling passenger complaints to publishing their lowest fares and retrieving lost baggage.
But in the meantime, the new Department of Transportation regulations, which don't require congressional approval, should at least limit the worst abuses. Passengers have every right to expect that when they get on a plane for a flight scheduled to last an hour or two, they won't still be strapped into their seats seven or eight hours later.