Should Airlines Be Given Right to Keep Business and Leisure Travelers on Tarmac for Three Hours?

Most airline executives are lucky that just a few of the actual flights that sit on the tarmac for extended periods actually make it into the headlines. They’re not alone. Politicians who haven’t passed legislation against this practice are also lucky that they haven’t been singled out for allowing this to continue. When stories do […]

Most airline executives are lucky that just a few of the actual flights that sit on the tarmac for extended periods actually make it into the headlines. They’re not alone. Politicians who haven’t passed legislation against this practice are also lucky that they haven’t been singled out for allowing this to continue.

When stories do make headlines – such as the situation when 47 passengers sat overnight on the tarmac at an airport in Minnesota in August, the critical importance of doing something is underscored. Today, time limits on the tarmac are arbitrarily set by the airlines with little consideration for the passenger experience.

This problem isn’t new. U.S. passengers have been asking for rights for more than a decade, but it was only in 2007 when a bill was proposed by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Olympia J. Snowe (R-ME), requiring airlines to go back to the gate after three hours on the tarmac. Another version of the bill also exists in the House.

It’s an interesting fact that roughly 73% of all flights travel a distance of 999 miles or less – an average flight block of two hours or less. This, based on September 2009 scheduled flights at the 30 largest U.S. airports, according to data from OAG, Washington, DC. Flights that travel a distance between 1,000-1,499 miles have an average scheduled flight block of three hours, 12% of all flights. Only 15% of flights have an average flight block of more than three hours.

Business travelers and others who rely on commercial airlines are an extremely patient bunch. Ask us to arrive 90 minutes or more prior to our departure time, and we do. Ask us to wait through security lines, pulling out our laptops and taking off our shoes, and we do. Ask us to purchase our bottles of water after the security screening areas at premium prices, and we do. We follow these procedures because we want to help ensure an on time departure.

But give airlines the right to expect us to sit patiently up to three hours or more on the tarmac, and it will test our limits.

Why is this happening? Perhaps it’s because the politicians who need to move a bill forward and vote it into law may not be sitting with us on commercial flights. Many rely on private jets and luxury military aircraft that accommodate their schedules and provide VIP service – rarely delayed, I’m sure. Those of us who fly commercially are expected to sit patiently in standard 17.2 inch wide seats (sometimes narrower) while roughly 25% of our flights never arrive on time.

In June, weather delayed my afternoon flight from Denver to Chicago; I didn’t mind waiting in the terminal because dozens were canceled in the morning and many more the prior evening. Lightening was spotted in the area, so the outside crews were called inside. And that was when the airline chose to announce that we were to board our plane within minutes. I had to step up and question the motive.

The agent working at the gate coarsely responded that someone like me should know that the airline’s policy allows them to keep us in the plane and on the tarmac for three hours.

I responded by saying that I would begin to keep time on my watch after everyone was boarded. They waited about 10 minutes and called the first group; we were lucky to only sit on the tarmac for about 40 minutes after the last passenger was seated.

Unless a more favorable bill gets introduced quickly, the fate of airline passengers on U.S. flights is now with the FAA Modernization Act of 2009 which includes the Senate bill language. And it will likely be years if that text is ever amended in favor of passengers.

With all due respect, it is a good thing that bills have been proposed. But nobody has offered a legitimate explanation as to how the three hour threshold was determined. And 613 flights were delayed three hours or more in the first six months of 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

I suggest that the Senators either revise or pull the current language for “The Airline Passenger Bill of Rights” and mark it up with more reasonable terms, including a maximum of 90 minutes on the tarmac and stiff financial penalties that compensate passengers if delayed beyond this time – cash. If needed, it should be forced out of committees and a vote demanded this fall.

Rob is editor of Business Travel Destinations. He was voted among the top 10 business travel bloggers by USA TODAY 10Best. Rob reviews international destinations for meetings and events — where business travelers go, the hotels where they stay and their lifestyle preferences on the road. He spent more than a decade planning hundreds of corporate events throughout the U.S. for a Fortune 50 company, including meetings, conferences, seminars, executive retreats and other special events. Rob was previously the event planning guide for About.com (owned by The New York Times Company) from 2007 – 2011. His articles have appeared in business travel publications and travel sites internationally.