WASHINGTON, D.C. — First, there was Continental Flight 2816, which sat overnight at the Rochester, Minn., airport with 47 people on board, and no food, water or bathroom availability.
Then, there was Sun Country Flight 242, which sat for nearly six hours on the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport tarmac.
The now-infamous incidents last month — just weeks apart — are adding fuel to the congressional push to limit how long airlines can keep planes stuck on the runway without offering passengers the option to deplane.
“We care a lot about this,” said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar during a gathering Tuesday on the issue. “We have airlines located in Minnesota, we have [people] who work in the industry, we have passengers, and we want to make sure that the business is strong and that people feel good about getting on an airline. And the way you do that is by passing the Passenger Bill of Rights.”
The Passenger Bill of Rights, which is currently included in the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill in the Senate, would put a three-hour time limit on planes stuck on airport runways.
After three hours, passengers would be given the option to de-board, if the captain decided that it was reasonable and safe to do so. The measure waives the requirement if the captain expects to take off within 30 minutes after the three-hour threshold.
The legislation would also require airlines to provide food, water and usable bathrooms to passengers stranded on flights.
The House has passed similar legislation but has chosen not to include the three-hour limit. Details will be worked out in conference committee.
The airlines have been fighting customer-service legislation for more than 10 years but have been losing ground recently as delayed flights, like the two in Minnesota, have received greater attention.
Although a very small percentage of flights are actually stuck on runways for more than three hours, more than 200,000 domestic passengers have been stuck for more than three hours since January 2007, according to the Department of Transportation.
On Tuesday, the Business Travel Coalition, which represents about 300 corporate travel departments and has long-opposed passenger rights legislation, backed the Senate measure.
“[In 1999] the Business Travel Coalition cautioned that if the airlines do not fix service and extended ground delay problems, someone will eventually endeavor to do so for them,” said Chairman of the Coalition Kevin Mitchell in a written statement on Tuesday.
“…There is an evident market failure that can only be addressed by government intervention.”
Robert L. Crandall, the former chairman and chief executive officer of American Airlines, agreed.
Crandall, however, suggested that the legislation initially stipulate a four-hour limit to allow the industry a transition period to adjust to the change in order to minimize a potential increase in cancellations.
“One of the factors complicating this whole matter is the fact that at those airports where lengthy taxi/hold times are the norm, three hours would allow very little “extra” time before a return-to-gate decision would have to be made,” he said.
Crandall pointed to New York’s JFK airport, where afternoon taxi-out times approach 50 minutes.
“A three-hour maximum would allow only an hour of holding time before launching plans to return to the gate,” Crandall said. “And that decision process would have to take place almost every day, not just during extreme events.”
The Senate measure would also require the Department of Transportation to review and approve airline customer-service plans. The Department of Transportation could impose fines if airlines fail to follow their plans.
On Tuesday, Klobuchar was confident that the measure would ultimately pass.
“There is widespread support,” Klobuchar said. “Much more bipartisan than a lot of things we do.”
Attaching the Passenger bill of Rights to the reauthorization bill, which provides funding for the entire airline industry, also enhances the possibility that the measure will pass.
Simply put, airlines want the reauthorization bill to pass, said Klobuchar. “So, it makes it an easier pill to swallow.”