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Ending Tarmac Delays: Don’t Let Change Die

November 2, 2009 By: George Dooley

Congress faces a crowded agenda for the balance of 2009 and well into 2010. Health care reform, cap and trade policies, appropriations bills and a host of other issues face lawmakers. But one issue that should not be forgotten is passenger rights legislation and the laudable efforts to get a sensible end to tarmac delays.

Travel agents have a vested interest in supporting changes in policy that would end tarmac delays and they should help the Passenger Rights efforts now underway. In fact, grass roots involvement by agents and the travel industry may be the only way to get meaningful protection for the traveling public. It’s an issue that should not be allowed to slip between legislative cracks.

A Passenger Rights Stakeholder Hearing was held September 22, sponsored by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Representative Mike Thompson (D-CA). Both champion a three-hour national standard for providing passengers the option of deplaning, should a captain decide it is safe to do so. Their bills, S.213 and HR 674, were strongly endorsed by airline passengers, ASTA,, the Business Travel Coalition (BTC) other travel groups.

A dozen experts testified at the hearing, both for and against legislation. "The clear outcome from the hearing is that legislation is urgently required to address a growing passenger health and safety problem that airlines are apparently unable or unwilling to fix themselves," Kevin Mitchell, chair of the BTC said of the meeting. Executive Director Kate Hanni testified: "The airline industry has been the voice of 'NO' for too long. The system is broken and passengers have been paying a dear price with their health, lost productivity and missed family events. This hearing shone a bright light on the fallacious arguments put forward by those airlines that seek to continue stonewalling against reforms that will benefit passengers and all airline industry stakeholders."

"There is now a clear expectation that Congress will move to enact legislation to create a national standard beginning with the requirement that airlines provide passengers an option to deplane after three hours," Mitchel said. "Airlines will likely have several months to adjust operations before the law is effective."

"BTC further encourages Congress to phase-in a two-hour standard one year after the initial three-hour rule becomes effective. Congress should likewise make mandatory the U.S. Department of Transportation Tarmac Delay Task Force recommendations," added Mitchell.

For testimony and background on the issue:, visit

"In 2008, the Tarmac Delay Task Force, following nearly a year of debate about how to deal with inevitable major delays that routinely inconvenienced passengers for up to eight or even 10 hours, tasked each airline with developing its own standard for when passengers are permitted to deplane in cases of lengthy tarmac delays," said Colin Tooze, vice president of government affairs for ASTA. "ASTA, which had a seat on the Task Force, voted for the final report. While imperfect, the report nevertheless represented a meaningful, positive step forward for airline passengers. Months went by with no action. In the face of continued delays and the evident lack of concrete efforts on the part of the airlines to create a meaningful solution to this problem, it is now our position that only a Congressionally-defined standard will compel the airlines to do what they have long promised to do in this most basic area of customer service."

Robert Crandall, the former chairman and CEO of American Airlines offered qualified support of changes. "I am firmly in favor of requiring airlines, airports, FAA, TSA, Customs, local law enforcement agencies, airline labor unions and any other organization or agency involved to abide by rules that will prevent people who wish to deplane from being held on airplanes for unacceptably long periods," he said. "Most aviation executives I know agree that keeping people involuntarily confined aboard airplanes for extended periods of time is unacceptable."

As Crandall’s testimony makes clear, resolving tarmac delays isn't as simple as it looks to passengers. There are questions about frequency of delays and reporting and many believe that the airlines can fix the problem on their own without government or Congressional intervention. Kicking the issue down the road until the next incident isn’t a solution. Travel agents concerned with their client’s welfare should support constructive change and Congressional action.  The next incident of tarmac delay could provoke a fatality - not just bad press or erosion of public confidence in the airlines. Don’t let the issue die!

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