Officials insist only a small fraction of flights have lengthy delays. But advocates urge new rights for passengers.
Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
If you're stranded on a plane for more than three hours, should the airline be required to make sure you have food, water, and clean bathrooms? Or should it take you back to the terminal?
That's the heart of a fierce debate going on in Washington, one that has very real consequences for hundreds of people every month who end up parked on the tarmac for more than three hours.
The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) reported this week that in January, almost 60 planes sat stranded on the tarmac for more than three hours. Another 39 diverted from their original destination were also delayed for three hours or more. Sixteen planes were delayed 10 hours or more because of being diverted.
Most passengers simply grumble at disrupted travel plans. But last week, a Scottish man was arrested after he tried to open the emergency door on a flight bound for Las Vegas that had sat on the tarmac for several hours.
That's an extreme example, but passengers' rights organizations say they receive thousands of complaints every month from frustrated people who feel trapped as they sit buckled into their seats for hours waiting for their plane to take off.
Several proposals for a passengers' bill of rights are pending in Congress. The Department of Transportation has also proposed regulations that would require all airlines to make contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays and make them part of the legally binding "contract of carriage" that is part of every airline ticket.