•HY did Continental Airline's partner, ExpressJet Airlines, strand 47 passengers on a crowded, malodorous plane overnight?
Because it could.
And until Congress acts on legislation to prevent such occurrences, airlines will continue periodically to treat their customers like cattle.
Passengers boarded Flight 2816 in Houston last week expecting a 2 1/2-hour flight to Minneapolis. What they got for their money (a one-way, coach ticket costs more than $600) was a 12-hour nightmare of airline incompetence, crying babies, and putrid toilets.
Diverted to Rochester, Minn., because of storms, passengers sat in their crowded plane, on the tarmac, until 6 a.m. before they were finally allowed to go into the terminal for a short respite before reboarding the same noxious plane and completing their seemingly endless journey to the Twin Cities.
As they waited just 50 yards from the terminal, travelers on another diverted plane were put on a bus to be driven to Minneapolis, only 85 miles away. Ironically, the final hours of the ExpressJet customers' delay were because a new flight crew had to be flown in to replace their crew, which had worked its legal limit.
But there was no legal limit on the number of hours passengers could be held hostage because, despite repeated similar incidents, there are no rules protecting them from the bad judgment of airline personnel. And passengers, fearful of anti-terrorism laws, end up acting like sheep instead of questioning their fate.
Airlines stranding passengers on planes with stale air, stinky bathrooms, and inadequate food and water is a recurrent problem.
On Jan. 3, 1999, Northwest Airlines left thousands of passengers in airplanes for up to 11 hours when two feet of snow paralyzed Detroit Metropolitan Airport. American Airlines showed a similar lack of caring in December, 2006, when passengers on dozens of flights were left on the tarmac rather than allowed back in the terminal during hours-long delays.
In the most egregious case in recent memory, discount carrier JetBlue stranded passengers on planes for 11 hours in February, 2007, when snow and ice storms in the Northeast and Midwest wrecked havoc with flights out of JFK airport in New York City.
In each case, federal lawmakers, in response to public outrage, promised a swift response. And in each case, when the public's ire cooled, the airline lobby was able to clip the wings of the reform effort.
A bill currently before the Senate would set a limit of three hours on how long airlines can keep people waiting on planes. That's a start but more is needed, including making sure marooned passengers have access to clean toilets, fresh air, water, and food.
As long as the tightly scheduled hub-and-spoke system continues to dominate the airline industry, bad weather will force airplanes to stack up on airport runways. But that doesn't mean passengers shouldn't be treated with dignity.