Flying right

Flying right

Revised travel prohibitions are OK,except for the fine print

By Jennifer Hadley 05/13/2010

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Idon’t talk a lot about air travel in this column, mainly because I try to avoid it whenever possible. But soon enough, I’ll be forced to take to the skies to go welcome my nephew into the world. Naturally, I’d prefer that my pregnant sister-in-law come have the baby here so I don’t have to fly, but some people seem to think that’s selfish of me. That means I’m going to have to woman up and hop a flight in a few weeks. Ick. Just thinking about it makes me nervous.
Fortunately, though, I have new rights as an airline passenger (assuming I leave out of a major airport, and not Van Nuys, for example). Thanks to the new US Department of Transportation’s tarmac delay rule, after two hours of sitting on an idle plane, the airline has to give me water and a snack. Score! Even better: I can no longer be held captive on a plane sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours. At that point, I now have the right to get off the plane and stretch my legs (and undoubtedly make a bee-line for the bar). Moreover, if the airline employees won’t let me, well, they’re going to pay. Yep, the DOT is really sticking it to them, fining them up to $27,500 per passenger if they won’t let us off the plane after three hours. Well, at least that’s how the DOT is spinning this story. 
It’s not a spin that they have enacted this new rule. It’s a done deal. And at first it sounds all butterflies and rainbows for passengers, but, as with all government rules, there is quite a bit of fine print that isn’t making huge headlines.  
First, consider that the three hours starts only once the cabin doors have been closed. Hmmm, given my gross distrust of airlines in general, I can’t help but wonder: If I’m a pilot and I know that I’m going to be delayed more than three hours, what harm is there in leaving that cabin door open just a wee bit longer than necessary? Of course, that’s just me. Surely real pilots wouldn’t entertain such an idea. 
Pilots also get quite a bit of wiggle room in interpreting this new rule. According to the DOT, pilots can make exceptions to the rule and refuse to return me to the terminal based on a safety or security issue. Safety and security issues like weather, for example. What kind of weather is going to prevent a pilot from letting me get off the plane? I hope they don’t intend to keep me on the plane in the event of a tornado, for crying out loud. So that leaves what? Rain as a safety or security issue? Still, it’s the pilot’s call.
Air traffic control can also override this rule and make me stay on the plane till kingdom come if they think sending me and my fellow passengers back to the terminal will grossly disrupt the airport’s operations. Seems to me if one plane returning to the terminal would disrupt the entire airport’s operations, that airport may need to do a little “restructuring.”
Other loopholes in this new regulation? None of this applies to international flights, which I find laugh-out-loud funny. I can’t be forced to sit on an immobile plane for more than three hours when I’m flying from here to Vegas. But if I’m flying from here to Tokyo, they’ll let me sit all the live-long day. Makes perfect sense. I’m sure even doctors will agree that the longer you sit cramped, unable to move or stretch your legs, the better. 
Still, for all my cynicism, I think that the DOT is at least trying to give air travelers more rights, and some of their forthcoming rules and regulations delight me. For example, by the end of July, major airlines will have to post delay statistics on their Web sites so that we can see just how often a flight we’re considering booking is delayed. And I applaud them for forbidding airlines to continue scheduling flights that are chronically delayed.
Moreover, I’m tickled to death that airlines must respond within 60 days to any written complaint I file. I have a feeling this might up the efforts of airlines to return to a more customer service-friendly business model, which seems to have flown the coop (hee-hee) years and years ago.  
So there you have it. We’ve been granted more rights. Will they let me down? Probably. The loopholes are pretty evident, but at least the federal government made an effort to make us feel like we have more rights. And since I do have to fly from time to time, having more rights is a good thing. In the meantime, I’m thankful I’m flying into Seattle next month and not, oh let’s say, Phoenix. Who knows what rights I’d have there. 

Contact Jennifer Hadley at


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