Will Long Flight Delays Speed a Passenger Rights Law?

The six-hour-long stranding of passengers aboard two different flights this month—a Continental Express (CAL) regional jet diverted to Rochester, Minn., by thunderstorms and a Sun Country Airlines delay on Aug. 21 at New York's JFK International Airport—has thrust the issue of torturous takeoff delays back into the headlines and may have improved the odds for a "passenger bill of rights" bill pending in Congress.

Airlines have fought similar measures in the past; such bills have languished in Congress since 2007. Carriers continue to lobby against rules governing flight delays, citing the additional costs and operational hassles. Still, supporters of the rights measures think there's a better chance of passage after the recent incidents. And those supporters include at least one airline CEO.

"It's going to be painful for the airline industry; it's going to be costly," says Sun Country CEO Stan Gadek, who has begun publicly supporting the proposed rules. "But it's clear that the customers are not going to tolerate this any longer." (Sun Country is not a member of the Air Transport Assn.,, the U.S. carriers' main trade group, which has lobbied against the passenger rights bill.)

Link to FAA Reauthorization The biggest changes are contained in the Senate version of the measure, which would mandate a three-hour limit on tarmac delays, after which a flight would have to return to the terminal unless the captain was reasonably certain of departure within the next 30 minutes. Airlines say such a change will further snarl taxiways and increase flight cancellations, merely infuriating passengers in a different way. The federal bill would also require airlines to provide additional food and water during long delays and mandate that airlines and airports develop customer-service plans that would be reviewed and approved by the U.S. Transportation Dept. The agency could fine airlines and airports that do not comply. The measure also would establish a government consumer complaint hotline.

The Senate Commerce Committee approved the measure in July and sent it to the full Senate. A similar bill—without a time limit—is pending in the House. The passenger rights proposals, part of a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, are likely to be debated this fall.

For passengers stuck on a plane, one crucial matter is whether there's a reasonable prospect that the flight will leave. If an airline has decided to return to the terminal, airport officials say, it's a relatively simple matter to find an available gate or other means to deplane and allow people into the airport. However, the problem of extreme ground delays arises most often when air-traffic control has issued a flight an expected departure—the "wheels-up time." Pilots—and, to be sure, most passengers—are reluctant to miss that departure time by breaking the queue of aircraft and returning to a terminal. Yet these estimated departure times often get moved back later and later as weather worsens or traffic builds up. Airlines say they can judge that appropriate wait on their own, while passenger rights advocates argue that the industry has failed repeatedly to do so.

Sun Country Takes Action Sun Country has already taken some measures on its own in response to the JFK delay. The airline says it will no longer allow its flights to await departure for more than four hours before unloading passengers. Gadek said the company is aiming for an even tighter three-hour limit to prepare for the bill of rights law, which he is convinced will be enacted. The airline is offering a $50 voucher for delays that go beyond two hours and will refund fares when delays hit six hours. Sun Country is a budget airline based in Mendota Heights, Minn., and has been operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since October, 2008.

"You can blame weather and air-traffic control…but at the end of the day, none of that matters," says Gadek, a former CFO at AirTran Airways (AAI), who contends that the proposed three-hour wait limit is reasonable at all U.S. airports except JFK. He said Sun Country is assessing the costs associated with delays from its two daily JFK-Minneapolis flights vs. the revenue they generate, although it expects to continue serving New York.

This isn't a new issue for airlines, and the industry claims it already has made adjustments based on earlier customer-service fiascos. In testimony before a House subcommitte in May, ATA Executive Vice-President John Meenan said the industry "learned a great deal from the unusual and extreme events of December 2006 and February 2007 about how to better handle lengthy delay situations and improve the decision process to cancel flights." He was referring to an American Airlines (AMR) flight diverted to Austin, Tex., in December 2006, and to the extreme operational problems that plagued JetBlue Airways (JBLU) during a winter storm two months later at JFK. "We remain firm in our conviction that legislation is not needed— and, in fact, it would likely cause a net decline in customer satisfaction," Meenan said. The ATA says that long flight delays today are rare. In June, only 23 domestic flights out of more than 700,000 had delays longer than four hours, and two more than five hours, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Ideas from Passengers However, if you're among those crammed into a plane for hours, drastic action may seem necessary. Some travelers have suggested a novel tactic when stuck aboard such a flight: Request police assistance. "Why not just call 911, explain the situation, and have the cops have the passengers exit the plane?" BusinesssWeek reader Colin asked in a comment he posted on Aug. 21 to a BusinessWeek blog. Another reader, "Hockey Guy," also suggested an emergency response was in order: "I would have to feign a sickness that would have the 911 crews coming and getting on board."

But police officials say being trapped on an airplane is not cause for 911 intervention, even though many acknowledge that if calls were placed their officers might inquire about the flight to determine the facts. Those inquiries could, in theory at least, help to resolve the situation more quickly. "In most cases, I can tell you the police would say there's just nothing we can do," says Duane McGray, executive director of the Airport Law Enforcement Agencies Network and a former Nashville police chief. "Chances are, at most airports, nobody would even be sent out in the first place." That's because local police have no legal jurisdiction on closed airplanes, save for medical emergencies or an imminent threat of harm to someone on board.

"I guess I would ask other than the flight delay, what's the emergency?" says Peter Arno, deputy chief of the Bangor (Me.) Police Dept. Adds Joe McBride, a spokesman for Kansas City International Airport: "Is my emergency your emergency? I don't know. It's all relative."

Communications Are Blamed "We're not sending police officers out there to knock on the door of the airplane," says Chief Roger Peterson of the Rochester (Minn.) Police Dept. (Rochester police were not called during the Aug. 8 Continental Express situation.) Still, he acknowledges that "if we get a 911 call obviously we're going to do something with that 911 call" and would likely call airport or airline officials to figure out what's happening. Peterson says that "if the right people are contacted then I'm pretty confident" the situation can be resolved.

Indeed, communications breakdowns are often cited as the primary cause of interminable delays. Senior management at both an airline and the airport may not be aware of the delay and flight crews are reluctant to return to a gate without their airline's approval. "A lot of times it's just poor communication and not having someone there on the scene who is willing to take control," says Larry Cox, president and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, which bills itself as "the world's busiest airport between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m." because of flight operations at FedEx's (FDX) primary hub.

Staff at Orlando International Airport, for example, monitor flight operations at all times and will inquire about flights delayed more than an hour, offering assistance as delay times grow, says Carolyn Fennell, a spokeswoman for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. A key effort in reducing passenger inconvenience is a close working relationship with tenant airlines, she said. "Part of [customer service] is also relationship-building" with airlines, Fennell says, so that when operations are disrupted, "you're not talking to a stranger."

Staffing Often a Problem In New York, home of the nation's most chronic air travel delays, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says any 911 calls would be referred to the airport operations staff to try to resolve the problem. (The Port Authority oversees the three main New York airports.) And, at least on paper, whenever passengers in New York are kept on a plane for more than two hours the agency requires airlines "to either devise their own workaround plan or contact Port Authority staff" for help. Still, delays of more than two hours are common at JFK, where JetBlue has its main hub and Delta (DAL) operates a large transatlantic hub. At peak periods, departure queues routinely stretch to 50 and 60 planes. That 2007 plan, the Port Authority Passenger Recovery in Cooperation with the Airlines (PAPRICA), is not legally binding.

Staffing can also be a problem in delay situations. In the case of the Continental Express flight diverted to Rochester at 12:30 a.m., the captain spent hours trying to deplane passengers into the airport terminal. The biggest impediment was the fact that Continental does not serve Rochester and has no ground staff there. That left the flight's operator, ExpressJet Holdings (XJT), talking with local representatives of Mesaba Aviation, a regional airline subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, to try to figure out a solution.

Gadek believes airline management can relieve the delays with a different focus, whether it's voluntary or forced by Congress. "Sometimes airlines get so focused on the technical aspects of the operation, the number of gates that are available and flow control, and all those kinds of things, that they lose sight of the fact that at the end of the day it's the customer that's paying the bill," Gadek says.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.