U.S. airlines, pressed by lawmakers to improve service, would be required to let travelers get off planes stranded on runways, under passenger-rights legislation due for a House vote today.
Fliers could leave after a "reasonable" wait, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said Wednesday. The U.S. Transportation Department would define "reasonable," which Thompson said he interprets as three hours.
Thompson announced the measure next to an aircraft cabin mock-up in Washington that a consumer group tried to make hot, smelly and noisy. House transportation leaders agreed to put the plan into an aviation budget bill scheduled for a vote today, Thompson said.
A requirement to let fliers off planes would be a setback for airlines, which are fighting such rules. Thompson and other lawmakers have pushed such legislation since passenger outrage erupted over runway delays in late 2006 and this year.
"No one should have to suffer what these people suffered," Thompson told reporters, referring to the runway strandings. "When I heard about this it made me pretty mad."
Airlines have said plans such as Thompson's may increase cancellations. "Inflexible government legislation and regulations are likely to result in more inconvenience," James May, president of the Air Transport Association trade group, said in a statement Wednesday.
The cabin mock-up was erected on the National Mall by the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, which includes fliers who say they've been stuck on planes. The group invited lawmakers to a "strand-in," piping in aircraft noises and using heated humidifiers with a liquid to mimic body odors.
"We let members of Congress know we will not go away," said Kate Hanni, 47, the executive director of the Napa, Calif.-based group. She founded the organization after getting stuck on an American flight.
Hanni said she was disappointed by earlier legislation proposed in the House and Senate that only required airlines to have plans for addressing passenger needs during long runway delays. Thompson's language, letting passengers exit, is crucial, she said.
About 1,070 flights were stranded on runways for two to three hours before takeoff through July, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The figures don't include flights canceled or diverted.