Congress to end long flight delays

The business travel community is siding with Congress on a new law that would address flight delays on the tarmac. The Business Travel Coalition, which represents the travel departments of 300 companies, is announcing today that it supports a new law that would give passengers some elbow room when a plane’s stuck on the ground.

If a plane is delayed for three hours or more on the tarmac, according to the bill, airlines would have to let the passengers get off the planes. This would provide welcome relief in among the gloomiest of travel situations. And, it could work to the airlines’ favor – though they wouldn’t admit it – as it would prevent negative public relations situations due to poor judgment. There have been enough delays to warrant at least the introduction of a bill, so there’s obviously a problem.

The Business Travel Coalition made the decision after surveying 649 corporate travel departments, travel agents and business travelers. More than 90 percent of the corporate travel departments and approximately 80 percent of travel agents and business travelers support the proposed rule. The National Business Traveler Association and American Society of Travel Agents have both come out in favor of the bill.

Since January 2007, USA Today reports that in excess of 200,000 passengers have been stranded on more than 3,000 planes for at least three hours after pushing back from or while waiting to approach a gate. There were 278 flights in this situation in June 2009 alone. While this is still a small portion of total passenger traffic, 200,000 people is a statistic that’s hard to ignore.

The issue of long tarmac delays was triggered recently by a Continental Express fight that was stuck on the ground in Rochester, Minnesota. The Senate has approved a version of the bill with the three-hour rule, while the House of Representatives has passed a less specific version, requiring that airlines submit a plan to the Department of Transportation for letting passengers off in the case of a long delay.

The Air Transportation Association is against the bill, though it calls long delays “unacceptable” (not exactly a hard position to take). The vice president of the ATA, David Castelveter, claims that airlines have contingency plans to deal with these situations and can handle the situations themselves.

According to USA Today, he says, “We continue to believe that a hard-and-fast mandatory rule for deplaning passengers will have substantial unintended consequences, leading to even more inconvenience for passengers and, ultimately, more flight cancellations.” He also explains that airlines have spent more money and invested in new technology to improve the service they provide.

Of course, we see how well that’s worked over the past three years for enough people to comprise a small city. I’m not a big fan of Congressional involvement, but it’s clear the airlines can’t handle this one on their own: they’ve proved it too often.