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Liberation On The Tarmac

Airlines can continue to herd their customers like cattle, pack us like sardines and nickel-and-dime us like the suckers we must be, since we keep coming back for more.

But they can no longer hold us hostage.

With pro-passenger legislation bottled up on Capitol Hill, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has issued a Department of Transportation rule addressing many of the concerns of travelers’ advocates.

LaHood is calling the new regulations, which will go into effect in April, a passenger bill of rights. The most important provision prohibits airlines from stranding passengers on the tarmac for more than three hours. Carriers also will now have to provide food and water to passengers delayed on the tarmac for two hours or longer.

These don’t seem like incredibly generous concessions, but the airline industry has fought them tooth and nail ever since the Clinton administration first took on the issue in 1999 after a blizzard kept Northwest Airlines planes on the ground in Detroit for seven hours.

The new regulations allow exceptions for safety and security and in cases where air traffic controllers determine that allowing the plane to dock at a gate would disrupt airport operations. But, if it is possible to return customers to the airport safely, and an airline fails to do so, it will face fines of up to $27,500 per passenger.

This is a step in the right direction. “Airline passengers have rights, and these new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly,” LaHood said in a statement. Kate Hanni, founder of the passengers rights organization FlyersRights.org, referred to the three-hour rule as “a Christmas miracle.”

However, there is still plenty more that could be done to ensure that airline passengers receive fair treatment. While the new rule should discourage airlines from leaving their customers languishing for hours on end, it offers no compensation for those who do suffer such ordeals.

In November, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg addressed a five-year-old European Union rule requiring that passengers whose flights are cancelled receive compensation. The court expanded that protection to those whose flights are delayed but not cancelled. Now those flying in the EU can receive up to €600, about $850, as compensation for flight delays, depending on the length of the flight and the timing of the delay. Passengers in the European Union whose flights are delayed are also entitled to free phone calls, meals and refreshments, and hotel accommodations if an overnight stay is required. After five hours, passengers can decide not to travel and have their ticket refunded.

Perhaps someday, the United States will adopt similar measures. But, for now, at least passengers will get to wait out long delays inside airports instead of on planes.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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