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"Stuck on tarmac? Congress may help"


Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Stuck on tarmac? Congress may help
Schmidt, others say there ought to be a law
The  Cincinnati (OH) Enquirer

WASHINGTON - As the busy summer travel season kicks into high gear and flights increase, so too could flight delays.

Last week, numerous flights were delayed throughout the Northeast - with many planes stuck on the tarmac - because of thunderstorms and a Federal Aviation Administration computer glitch.

Just last Sunday, a Cathay Pacific Airways flight headed from San Francisco to Hong Kong sat on the tarmac from midnight to 7 a.m.

The lengthy tarmac delays aren't new - and that's the problem, lawmakers say. Years after a 1999 snowstorm stranded more than 3,200 passengers on the tarmac in Detroit first called attention to the problem, the delays aren't going away.

Now Rep. Jean Schmidt, rattled by her own experience with a recent flight delay, is investigating the problem. The Republican from Miami Township, Clermont County, has introduced legislation to require the Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics to collect data on prolonged tarmac delays, which now go undocumented.

Last year, one in four of the 7.1 million flights in the United States arrived late or were canceled, most because of weather.

Perhaps more upsetting, however, is the number of flights - nearly 1,300 - delayed on the tarmac for more than three hours last year.

Mike Weisert, 27, who grew up in Miami Township but now lives in San Jose, is a frequent traveler and sat through one of those delays.

He was on a plane at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport when his flight was delayed - on the tarmac - for four hours because of weather conditions in Boston.

"The agents were unable to explain why we couldn't stay in the terminal to wait it out," Weisert said. "It was miserable, hot and there was no air conditioning as we sat in the Texas heat."

Last Feb. 14, an ice storm caused nine JetBlue planes to be stuck for more than five hours on the tarmac at New York's John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports. That well-publicized delay drew widespread attention - again - to the problem of prolonged tarmac delays, prompting Congress to consider legislation to address the problem.

"It is outrageous that some passengers have been so mistreated," said Schmidt days after the JetBlue delays. "Airline passengers do not deserve to be treated like cattle."

Meanwhile, the House Subcommittee on Aviation is holding a series of hearings this year on aviation consumer issues, such as tarmac delays.

Legislation to update and improve the FAA is pending in Congress this summer and some lawmakers support including language safeguarding passenger rights in the bill.

"Voluntary efforts by the industry to improve airline service have come under strong criticism and I believe closer oversight of the aviation industry is needed," Chairman Jerry Costello, D-Ill., warned airline companies at the outset of the April hearing. "If the industry does not take action to address these issues, Congress will."

An audit last year by the U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general's office found that only five of the 14 airlines that signed a voluntary customer service commitment drafted by the Air Transport Association in 1999 had implemented internal quality assurance and performance measurement systems to meet their promise.

The agreement came after the Detroit delays in 1999 and, among other things, require airlines to notify travelers of delays, cancellations and diversions, as well as meet the "essential needs" of travelers during long on-aircraft delays.

"Enough is enough," Paul Ruden of the American Society of Travel Agents told lawmakers. "Passengers should not be forced to remain on aircraft without adequate food, water and toilet facilities for periods such as six, eight or even more hours while waiting to take off."

The Air Transport Association, which represents most major U.S. airlines, supports better data collection on the delays, something the Transportation Department is considering implementing.

Airline Customer Service Commitment

What: Fourteen major airlines signed a voluntary commitment on June 17, 1999, to improve their customer service in nine key areas after a snow storm in Detroit caused major delays, forcing more than 3,200 passengers to be stranded on the airport's tarmacs for more than four hours. Fifteen flights were delayed in Detroit for more than eight hours, with some running out of food and water.

Who signed: Alaska Airlines, Aloha Airlines, America West Airlines, American Airlines, American Trans Air, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, Midwest Express Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Trans World Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways.

What they promised:

• Offering the lowest fare available.

• Notifying customers of known delays, cancellations and diversions.

• Delivering baggage on time and returning "lost" bags within 24 hours.

• Supporting an increase in the baggage liability limit.

• Allowing reservations to be held without payment, or canceled without penalty, for 24 hours.

• Providing prompt ticket refunds.

• Accommodating disabled and special needs passengers properly.

• Meeting customers' essential needs during long on-aircraft delays.

• Handling "bumped" passengers with fairness and consistency.

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