Fliers trapped on tarmac push for rules on release

Brad Dwin was so angry about being stuck on an airplane last month that he volunteered to work for free for a passengers-rights organization.

Dwin, president of a marketing and public relations company, says he spent about six hours on June 10 in a window seat waiting on the tarmac of Washington's Dulles airport for his United Airlines uaua flight to take off to Las Vegas. Looking out the window, he saw other planes waiting. Like Dwin, passengers on those planes were essentially trapped, too.

Being "trapped on a plane for several hours causes a lot of frustration," Dwin, of Silver Spring, Md., says. "You reach a certain point when people with a calm demeanor get angry."

Dwin's anger took him to FlyersRights.org. It's a group that has been lobbying Congress since January 2007 to free airline passengers from being held on planes for hours with no way to get back to the terminal to make other travel arrangements.

"Passengers don't want to be treated like cargo — they want to be treated like paying passengers," says Kate Hanni, who founded FlyersRights.org after her family spent more than eight hours on the tarmac. "Passengers feel completely powerless trapped in a sealed metal tube with no access to goods and services, and no way to get off."

Congress has gotten the message. Legislation that would let passengers get off planes delayed on airport tarmacs is moving through the House and Senate as part of a bill reauthorizing and funding the Federal Aviation Administration.

A Senate committee last week voted to require airlines to let passengers get off planes that are delayed for more than three hours. The House has passed a less specific version. It requires each airline to submit to the Transportation Department a plan to allow passengers to get off planes with long delays.

For many irate fliers, action seems overdue. About 200,000 domestic passengers such as Dwin have been stuck on about 3,000 planes for three hours or more waiting to take off or taxi to a gate since January 2007, a USA TODAY analysis of Transportation Department data shows. Between October 2008 and May 2009, there were 577 planes that sat for that long.

The airlines, however, say that long delays are rare and result mostly from bad weather and a backed-up air-traffic-control system. They warn that forcing them to return planes to terminals after three hours could often make matters worse.

"Such a rule would result in numerous unintended consequences that ultimately will create inconveniences for passengers and lead to more flight cancellations," says David Castelveter, vice president of the Air Transport Association of America, which represents U.S. airlines.

Babies were crying

The USA TODAY analysis of delays that the airlines report to the Transportation Department finds that long delays are rare. Between October and May, when 19 big airlines operated 4.3 million domestic flights, the 577 delays of three hours or more translated into a rate of 1.35 flights per every 10,000.

That's of little consolation to passengers such as Dwin, 38, who says he had little room to get up and stretch. Two disabled passengers in his row made it difficult to leave his seat. But, he says, "The most frustrating thing was that no one from United gave accurate information about the situation or showed any remorse."

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