Thursday, December 24, 2009

Is new passenger rights rule steak, or sizzle?

By DeWayne Wickham

On the day the Transportation Department announced it will begin fining airlines for subjecting passengers to lengthy ground delays, I sat aboard a plane for more than an hour-and-a-half before it took off from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The nearly full Southwest Airlines plane, which boarded passengers 30 minutes before its scheduled departure on Monday, didn’t pull away from the gate until nearly 70 minutes after it was supposed to depart for Orlando, Fla. The captain told us over the intercom that we were waiting for passengers stuck in long lines at the security check-in area.

Two days earlier, Baltimore — like much of the mid-Atlantic region — was hit by a blizzard that left 21 inches of snow on the ground, forcing many people to reschedule their flights.

To its credit, Southwest made every effort to efficiently unload the incoming passengers on my plane before loading the new passengers for the next leg. But that didn’t make it any easier to sit for about an hour and 40 minutes before the plane left the gate.

As flight delays go, this one was relatively minor. On Saturday, the morning of the snowstorm, an Air Jamaica flight got stuck on the Baltimore airport’s tarmac after its wings were de-iced. The 148 passengers languished in the cabin for eight hours before returning to the terminal. That’s the kind of nightmare transportation officials hope to prevent with their new rule, which takes effect in April.

Airlines that keep passengers on domestic flights stuck on the ground for three hours or longer could be fined $27,500 per passenger. When passengers are on a plane for at least two hours without taking off, the airline must provide food, water and a working bathroom.

“We will comply with the new rule even though we believe it will lead to unintended consequences — more canceled flights and greater passenger inconvenience,” said James May, president of the Air transport Association, which represents major U.S. airlines.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the new rules “President (Barack) Obama’s passenger bill of rights.”

I hope he’s right. I hope this rule’s good intentions aren’t undermined by the fine print. Airlines will be exempt from the new rule for security and safety reasons that aren’t spelled out. Also, a pilot won’t have to return to the terminal and let passengers off if air traffic controllers say it would disrupt the airport’s flight operations.

What exactly does that mean?

Is it a disruption for a plane to return to a gate that’s busy with arriving and departing flights? Does the clock stop on applying the rule if a safety or security concern is declared? When does it restart? Who decides?

By the time my flight left on Monday, I’d been in my seat for nearly as long as it took the plane to fly to Orlando. In such a case, does the clock start when the plane is boarded, or when it’s supposed to be airborne?

Like most frequent fliers — and millions of other people who fly only occasionally — I welcome this new rule. I just hope it doesn’t end up being more sizzle than steak.

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