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Air travelers, others speak out on passenger bill of rights

  • Story Highlights
  • Unofficial Capitol Hill hearing addressed concerns over long tarmac delays
  • Bill sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer would allow fliers to deplane after three hours
  • Former American Airlines CEO spoke in support of three-hour limit
  • Another witness said routine delays are more pressing issue
By Mike M. Ahlers
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Airline passengers who were trapped on tarmacs "like sardines in a can" had their opportunity to air their grievances Tuesday at an unofficial Capitol Hill hearing that shared some of the characteristics of those flights.

The hearing was sponsored by advocates of the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

The hearing was sponsored by advocates of the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

The hearing was overbooked: The room had more participants than seats.

The take-off was slightly delayed: The hearings started five minutes late.

And, appropriately, it lasted more than three hours, the maximum time passenger advocates say people should be confined on the ground.

The hearing was sponsored by advocates of the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, which would require airlines to give passengers the option of leaving a plane after it has sat on the ground for three hours. The proposal, which lacked adequate support in 2007 and 2008, has gained steam this year because of several highly publicized incidents, including a nearly six-hour overnight wait involving a regional jet in Rochester, Minnesota.

"We were not offered food. We were not offered water," said Link Christin, one of 47 passengers on the Rochester plane. "The toilet broke at about 3 o'clock in the morning, and it was impossible to sleep. Either Baby One cried, or Baby Two cried, or my foot got stepped on by somebody going to the bathroom."

"People have asked me, 'Why didn't you do something?' " he said.

"As a practical matter, you're a little bit in shock; you're in survival mode. You're being told every hour that you're going to get off. ... There was always a carrot in front of us that we think is going to get us off the plane. And I suggest to you that that's why 47 people did not mutiny that evening."

The star witness for the passenger advocates was Robert Crandall, former chairman and chief executive of American Airlines, who spoke in support of the three-hour limit.

"We can and we should solve the problem of extraordinarily long tarmac delay by imposing reasonable obligations on the airlines and other agencies that make up our aviation system," Crandall said.

But he added that he favors a looser four-hour limit until 2011 to give the industry time to adjust operating procedures.

Crandall said the industry's resistance to the rule is rooted in its "preoccupation with safety." The industry resists any change "that is not fully understood and has not been thought through in every detail," he said.

He said he believes that the rule can be made without affecting safety.

While saying that lengthy tarmac delays can have significant impacts on individuals, he said the problem is statistically small. In the first seven months of this year, only 776 of 3.8 million flights -- or 0.02 percent -- experienced tarmac delays of more than three hours, he said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, sponsor of the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, called her bill "extremely modest," saying many passenger advocates want even tighter time limits.

The rule would give pilots discretion to keep passengers on board longer than three hours for safety reasons, such as lightning storms, or if the pilot believed that the plane would take off shortly.

But two hearing participants testified that a three-hour rule could worsen the situation, increasing the number of canceled flights.

"I don't believe the three-hour rule will actually change things very much at all, given the small number of affected flights," said Amy Cohn, an associate professor at the University of Michigan. "And when it does change things, I think some passengers may be helped, and others may be harmed."

If one passenger insists on being released, Cohn said, the plane would return to the terminal, possibly delaying departure for everyone else on the plane.

Cohn said the focus on extremely lengthy delays is also diverting attention from the more pressing problem of routine delays. If Congress fixed routine delays, it would help alleviate lengthy delays, she said.

Tuesday's hearing was sponsored by FlyersRights.org and the Business Travel Coalition. And though it was held in a House of Representatives office building, it was not an official House hearing. Writers and editors for travel industry publications took the place of members of Congress in questioning the witnesses.

Organizers said the top airline industry organization declined to participate.

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