Sept. 30, 2009 — -- Question: What's worse than being on a flight next to a screaming baby, whose diaper should have been changed hours ago?
Answer: Being seated on a plane next to that baby -- for nine hours -- and your plane isn't going anywhere!
The airlines will tell you that such "trapped on the tarmac" scenarios are rare and that's absolutely true. But it has happened to more than 200,000 passengers in the last three years, according to USA Today -- 200,000 people stuck on "Planes to Nowhere" for three hours or more.
And it keeps happening: just last month, 50 people were stuck overnight on a plane in Rochester, Minn. with a single lavatory. Do the math and you get one smelly, frustrating mess.
Ah, but finally, there's light at the end of the jetway: Thanks to efforts to add "passenger rights" to the FAA reauthorization bill that is now working its way through Congress, we will likely see big changes by the end of the year.
But it won't completely end the agony.
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At least, that's what Kate Hanni says, and she should know. The Executive Director of Flyersrights.org, who endured her own dreadful experience during an eight-hour tarmac delay has made it her mission to get passenger rights enacted into law. "People were going into diabetic shock, women were making diapers out of t-shirts, people were getting in fist fights," Hanni says.
And what a battle it's been: all to allow people the right to get off a plane.
The airlines have fought the "passenger rights" provisions with arguments like, what if people get off a plane after three hours, and the pilot suddenly gets permission to fly? The empty aircraft will then lose its place in line for take-off, and the delay will just get worse.
Question: why should a jet necessarily lose its place in line? Airports are going to have to figure out how to handle all sorts of issues including international travelers and full gates, so I feel quite certain they can handle this -- maybe by having each aircraft "take a number" -- just like you would at the deli.
But wait, says a spokesman for the Airline Transport Association, a trade group that represents U.S. carriers -- what about the children? Yes, the children, said association spokesman David Castelveter: "I think of the unaccompanied child who will be stranded in a strange city because a few people want to get off the plane."
Well, there aren't too many children traveling solo, not when it costs mom and dad an extra $200 plus for an "unaccompanied minor fee" on top of the cost of the kid's ticket. But then, there aren't a lot of passengers traveling who have "special needs" either, but we are legally (and morally) obligated to see to their needs. It's just something the airlines and airports will have to figure out.
One former airline CEO has, surprisingly, come down firmly on the side of "passenger rights": the legendary Robert Crandall of American Airlines. This is a man who was famous for roaring at anyone who opposed the airlines -- "academic pinhead" is one of his few, printable expletives -- but now he's onboard with the passengers though Crandall thinks the airlines should start with a four-hour cutoff, before phasing it to three.
The head of Sun Country Airlines is another "renegade." He agrees with Crandall on a four-hour limit, and in fact implemented such a cap back in August, just a few days after one of his jets idled on the tarmac at JFK for six hours.
Could a four- hour limit be a decent compromise?
No way, says global traveler Jeffrey Smithers of Los Angeles. Let's go in the other direction: "After two hours, the conditions on the plane become downright unsanitary."
Meanwhile, the "passenger rights" bill, which Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., among others, expects will be approved won't end Hanni's activism: "There is still a mother lode of outstanding issues that must be addressed such as baggage compensation, 'bumping' compensation and so much more."
"Bumping?" That's when you give up your seat because the airline overbooked. Of course, there are rules in place for that -- passengers can actually get cash for being involuntarily bumped -- so we should be okay, right?
Not necessarily. The Department of Transportation recently announced a record-breaking fine of $375,000 against Spirit Airlines for bumping irregularities and more: "Spirit also failed to resolve baggage claims within a reasonable period, on one occasion taking 14 months to provide compensation." Spirit blamed "growing pains" and said they're back on track.
Final thought: some worry that "passenger rights" is just one more instance of Big Brother watching over us. I suppose that's true. But it's nice to have someone watching over us -- as opposed to sitting on that plane, next to that poor, screaming baby.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.