Passenger Bill of Rights — Good Idea?

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DOT data shows more than 600 incidents of passengers stuck on the tarmac 3 hours or more during this year’s first seven months. There are more than 87,000 flights per day in the skies in the United States of which 1/3 or ~29,000 are commercial carriers. Extrapolating that out on a yearly basis is equal to 10,585,000 flights. Six hundred events of tarmac delays in the first 7 months is equal to .00567 %; which may seem like reasonable number considering the limitations of the current Air Traffic Management System as well as weather, gate availability and delays due to mechanical problems.

For the year 2008, DOT data indicated more than 1,400 incidents of passengers stuck on the tarmac for 3 hours or more. That equates to .013%.

The steps that airlines and the government could take to reduce the number of such incidents include:

1. Implement NextGen and associated technologies.
2. Increase the number of air traffic controllers.
3. Create special terminals and gates for delayed flights.
4. Build new gates and expand airports.
5. Establish an event database similar to a SMS risk management model to identify events and hazards; complete risk analysis and assign corrective actions and management responsibility; and tackle repeat events.
6. Establish an industry / government task force to determine the cost impact and develop solutions/recommended actions.
7. Benchmark against other transportation modes or other government regulations.

What is a reasonable amount of delay time before passengers should be allowed to go back to the terminal and get off a plane?

That is a difficult question to answer but the elements that must be addressed/researched include:

1. Access to food, water, cabin cooling – the FAA already has an existing Advisory Circular published on this topic.
2. Weather at arrival and departure airports.
3. Policy and procedures have to be consistent for all operators, mainline and regional alike.
4. What happens if there is a medical or other emergency on board; what about disabled passengers?
5. Impact of flight crew rest and duty time; if exceeded what is impact on connecting flights and staffing?
6. What is downstream impact if there is a time limit set and how does that impact security, operations, other flights, ground support/service such as fuel, AC/electrical, ground service personnel gates etc. All will drive up operating costs.
7. What are the airport limitations for apron and taxiways; ability to U turn and be rerouted to the gate?
8. Air Carrier operating costs will go up; how are the costs covered?

The most popular benchmark being floated is a 3-hour delay. For whatever reason passengers are putting the burden on air carriers when it may not be in their control if it is weather or AZTM related.

In determining whether a Passenger Bill of Rights is a good idea, several potential issues need to be considered:

1. Air carrier and passenger contract terms. Does a full price ticket and low fare ticket have the same “rights” re-enplanement and deplaning? How can those terms be dictated by government? An operator that is customer focused will do the right thing and make a bad situation that is mostly out of their control bearable.

2. Should Congress pass a bill requiring airlines to allow passengers off planes after a certain number of hours? If a bill like the Passenger Bill of Rights is pushed thru Congress then DOT should establish the limits not Congress. If there is bill passed then the time limit should be specific enough so the flight is canceled and rescheduled for a later time that day or the next day. Specific guidelines as to what passengers would be entitled to would need to be delineated.

3. In the event that a bill is passed, passengers should not have the option to deplane if the pilot reasonably determines that the aircraft will depart or be unloaded at the terminal not later than 30 minutes after the delay or that permitting a passenger to deplane would jeopardize passenger safety or security. Will it be a passenger option or will all have to deplane?

4. Airport operators would have to submit contingency plans describing how they would handle deplaning passengers following long ground delays, as well as create a telephone complaint hotline for passengers.

Maybe no bill should be enacted as the solution will likely be harder to manage than the problem. Flying like driving your automobile has risks, stuff happens and statistically it is still a small problem. Hopefully, NextGen and other operational improvements will alleviate a good portion of the tarmac delay events.

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