Recent delays put 'bill of rights' back on the radar

Sun Country check-in counter
After an incident where Sun Country passengers were kept on a grounded plane for more than six hours, CEO Stan Gadek said the airline is adjusting its policy so that they won't keep passengers on a plane more than four hours.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

There's been grumbling for years that the government should limit how long passengers can be cooped up on a plane that's waiting to take off or after it's landed. Despite the grumbling, there's been no legislation. But incidents involving two recent notorious flights bound for Minnesota may change that.

From January to June this year, a little more than 600 flights out of over 3.2 million, about 0.019 percent, were stuck on runways for more than three hours.

None attracted as much attention as did a Continental Express flight diverted earlier this month to Rochester, Minnesota. Passengers sat 50 yards from the terminal for about six hours in a cramped plane with crying babies and a stinking toilet.

Federal officials blamed the situation on a bad call by an employee of Twin Cities-based Mesaba Airlines.

This past Monday, a Sun Country flight from New York City to Minneapolis-St. Paul waited nearly six hours on a runway before the flight was cleared to take off.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said those two ill-fated, Minnesota-bound flights are giving new impetus to legislation limiting how long passengers can be kept on a plane, while it's on the ground.

"It's just ridiculous," Klobuchar said. "These passengers are packed in like sardines, and they can't get out of the plane. It makes sense to no one."

Rochester airport
The airport in Rochester, Minn.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Klobuchar said airlines have shown they can't be trusted to treat passengers right during long delays. So, she said Congress needs to give travelers a bill of rights.

Even though airlines have succeeded in thwarting such legislation in the past, Klobuchar thinks the passenger rights bill stands a good chance of becoming law this time. That's because it's part of a broader legislative package that involves the Federal Aviation Administration and its budget, most notably funding for an improved air traffic control system.

"What the passenger bill of rights said is: 'Let's have some basic standards. Three hours on the tarmac, no more. Unless the passengers think they'll leave within a half hour. Adequate food and water, and a hotline where people can call in and complain; so we can track what's going on out there,'" Klobuchar said. The senator said improving the nation's air traffic control system could go a long way toward reducing extraordinarily long flight delays.

Mendota Heights-based Sun Country has apologized for letting passengers sit on a plane for nearly six hours. CEO Stan Gadek said the airline hoped the flight would take off much earlier but runway work at the Twin Cities airport, bad weather and congestion in New York combine to prevent that.

Now, Gadek said Sun Country won't keep passengers on a plane more than four hours.

Gadek said the government should step in if airlines don't set hard limits on how long passengers can be stuck on a plane.

"People shouldn't have to sit on airplanes indefinitely," Gadek said. "We're the first airline that's stepping up and saying it's going to be four hours for us and in all likelihood it's going to be a lot less."

Gadek recognizes the policy could mean more cancelled flights and some travelers may not reach their destination until the next day.

"I've got to err on the side of the people who want to get off the airplane," he said. "We've all been there and had that experience, and it's unacceptable. As an airline CEO, I don't want to be sitting on an airplane or have my customers sit on an airplane for indefinite periods of time."

Overall, the airline industry opposes any government cap on tarmac delays, insisting airlines need flexibility, not government edicts, to address the problem.

"A three-hour rule will in fact result in more cancellations, more delays, more passenger inconvenience, more costs for customers when their flights are cancelled, more costs for airlines," said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an airline industry group.

Castelveter said passenger situations like the one in Rochester are unacceptable and warrant possible sanctions by regulators. But, he argues delays lasting three or more hours are increasingly rare, as airlines work to reduce long delays. In June, he said just 42 flights out of nearly 560,000 scheduled flights had delays of four hours or more.

They may be rare, but those long delays sure do rile travelers.

"If it's your 85-year old mother in an aluminum tube in August in Florida, it's lost on you that it's statistically insignificant," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition group usually opposed to government regulation.

But Mitchell said passengers need some protection from being trapped on planes. "What passengers and their advocates only want is that commitment and concern is brought to bear on this health and safety issue." he said.

Mitchell said the vast majority of travel industry professionals believe government intervention is now necessary, and with public outrage over flight delays running high, that intervention might just happen.