Friday, February 02, 2007

International Herald Tribune Editorial - Indefinitely grounded

International Herald Tribune Editorial - Indefinitely grounded
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
Published: February 1, 2007

Travelers and airlines have a deal. In exchange for transporting them safely, passengers agree to give up a great deal of freedom of movement. Once aboard a plane, there's no getting off until the crew says so. People have to sit when they're told, buckle up and raise their seatbacks on command. In return, passengers expect the airlines to take care of them.

But several recent high-profile failures suggest that Congress needs to intervene and set some ground rules to enforce this deal for people unreasonably stranded on aircraft. Delays at the gate are a hassle, but extraordinary delays on planes can be dangerous for the handicapped, chronically ill, elderly or small children.

Take the passengers of American Airlines Flight 1348, whose flight from San Francisco to Dallas was diverted by bad weather to Austin, Texas. Obviously, weather is out of human control, and airlines rightly err on the side of safety rather than haste when it comes to bad weather or mechanical difficulties. Flying invariably entails a risk of delay.

But there is delay, and then there is detention. The passengers on Flight 1348 were trapped on the plane after it landed for another eight hours. They say there was nothing to eat but pretzels, and the toilets began to stink. Passengers say they overflowed. The airline says they didn't. The difference is not worth debating.

Passengers from that flight have revived the idea of a Passengers' Bill of Rights, posting their ideas at Among the common-sense notions are procedures to get passengers back to a gate when a plane has been sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours. When delays are that long, passengers' essential needs — food, water, medical attention and sanitation— must be met. These proposals are a good starting point for eventual legislation.

Following a similar incident in 1999, the airlines managed to avoid this sort of law through a voluntary customer service commitment.

Congress should hold hearings to revisit their promises — and replace them with some requirements.


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