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Published: 2/23/2007

Code blue for air travel

AIRLINES can't control freakish weather, but they can develop some sort of system to avoid stranding travelers in packed planes on runways for hours at a time.

Last week's snow and ice storms in the Midwest and Northeast so tied up the operation of popular budget carrier JetBlue that some passengers were marooned for up to 10 hours on planes that couldn't take off from JFK airport in New York City.

The story was the same aboard dozens of American Airlines flights in Dallas in late December. Aircraft were kept on the tarmac rather than returned to terminals.

Stale air, lack of food and water, and toilets that were overwhelmed as the hours crept by solidified the deteriorating image of air travel in the United States as only slightly better than that of flying cattle cars.

In JetBlue's case, CEO David G. Neeleman admitted that poor management, not just the weather, was to blame for his company's fiasco, which resulted in 1,000 canceled flights over five days. Mr. Neeleman said the foul-up left him "humiliated and mortified," which describes only a fraction of the distress the trapped passengers must have felt.

JetBlue, which has struggled with service based on low fares, promises to make amends with ticket vouchers and come up with a system to avoid a repeat. American Airlines and other carriers that have willfully stranded passengers during delays would do well to follow suit or face increased government supervision.

Some in Congress already are talking about reviving a mandated "passenger's bill of rights." The airline industry was able to fend off legislative action to penalize poor service after similar events nearly a decade ago.

One of those events occurred close to home on Jan. 3, 1999, when two feet of snow engulfed Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Thousands of Northwest Airlines passengers ended up waiting aboard aircraft stalled on the tarmac for as long as 11 hours in squalid conditions.

Northwest later paid $7.1 million to settle a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the bedraggled passengers. But calls for congressional mandates on the airlines came to naught after the companies argued that government micro-management would be bad for business.

Eight years later, airline promises of reform in weather emergency procedures, and of better service overall, have mostly evaporated. As the Washington Post reported, the airlines "have cut spending on food by 30 percent since then, federal statistics show. They have slashed payrolls. Their on-time performance has dropped for five years in a row, though it is still better than in 2000. They lost more bags per 1,000 passengers in 2006 than in any other year in more than a decade."

A lot of these problems are due to a combination of unpredictable weather and the tightly scheduled "hub and spoke" mode of operation adopted by many carriers, including American at Dallas and Northwest in Detroit, after airline deregulation in 1978.

When nasty weather strikes a hub airport, departing flights often are permitted to leave gates only to be kept from taking off as conditions worsen. Meanwhile, new flights arrive, leaving no gates for marooned aircraft to return to.

What the airlines must do is set a standard for the length of time flights can be held on the tarmac and maintain fleets of vehicles that can be used to remove stranded passengers and take them back to the terminal.

The result, in the event of major weather emergencies, might be badly crowded airports for a time, but that would be better than treating the people who buy the tickets like so many cattle consigned to their inevitable fate.



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