WASHINGTON (AP) - A federal task force approved voluntary guidelines Wednesday for airlines and airports dealing with passengers stranded for hours on the tarmac but produced no fixed limit on how long they can be delayed before being allowed to leave planes.
Passengers who had hoped for stronger protections were left empty-handed by the guidelines. "You have to admit that the game is still heavily weighted to business as usual," Kate Hanni, a passenger rights advocate, told her fellow task force members before voting against adoption of the report. Passenger rights advocates said the report of the tarmac task force, as it is informally known, reflected demands by airline members that they have the flexibility to design their own response plans and not be pinned to a time limit for holding passengers on tarmacs.
Task force member Daniel Rutenberg of the International Airline Passengers Association also expressed disappointment at the lack of "time-specific triggers" for allowing passengers to return to gates and appealed to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to address the issue. Transportation Department Assistant General Council Sam Podberesky, the task force's chairman, said the department is working separately on a rule that will require airlines and airports to have contingency plans and include a time limit.
Federal rulemaking is a lengthy process, guaranteeing the issue will be among those waiting for the Obama administration. The report "is a set of best practices, but there's nothing enforceable where a passenger can say, 'I won't be held up for more than three hours or five hours or eight hours, or without a glass of water or a sandwich,"' said Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights.
Task force member Benjamin DeCosta, the aviation general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, said that he favors time limits but that they need to be tailored to each airline and each airport. "This problem is so complex that one size doesn't fit all," DeCosta said. The task force report recommends that: -Airlines update passengers delayed on tarmacs every 15 minutes even if there is nothing new to report. -A secure room be provided for passengers from diverted overseas flights so they can avoid having to go through security checks when reboarding an aircraft to their final destination. -When practical, refreshments and entertainment should be made available to passengers confined aboard aircraft awaiting takeoff. -Airlines should make reasonable efforts to be keep airplane restrooms usable.
The Transportation Department's inspector general last fall recommended setting a limit for how long airlines can force passengers to wait on planes that have been delayed taking off. The 36-member task force was created in December by Peters to develop model plans for after several incidents in which passengers were stuck for hours before their flight took off or before they were allowed to get off the plane.
Task force members said it quickly became apparent that the group - dominated by airline industry and airport representatives - would be unable to come up with a model plan acceptable to a majority of members. "The airlines don't want it, and the airports - several of them major airports - believe they already have plans" to deal with passengers stuck aboard aircraft, said task force member Paul Ruden, a senior vice president at the American Society of Travel Agents.
Ruden said his main objection is that the task force does not ask Peters to require airlines and airports to develop contingency plans. "I had hoped we would do more," Ruden said, adding that the recommendations might still be of use to smaller airports and airlines. The Air Transport Association, the trade association for the airline industry, said the task force achieved its objective and some of its recommendations are already being adopted by the industry. "The success of the task force clearly demonstrates that not every problem requires a new law or regulation, especially when it comes to operational and customer-service issues," Elizabeth Merida, a spokeswoman for the association, said in a statement.