The Passenger Bill of Rights: Feckless

This new regulation now compels me to make a decision that is possibly not in

No Way Out

the best interest of my passengers when I approach the newly imposed time limit; continue toward the runway or return to the gate. Remember, Secretary LaHood now has a $5.9 million gun pointing at my company’s wallet and I decide if he gets paid. Under those terms you can guarantee that I will elect to return to the gate. Then we’ll see what those 216 passengers originally bound for Europe really think about their new Passenger Bill of Rights.

As Merriam-Webster defines feckless; “worthless and irresponsible”, it carries unequivocal impact while having a certain linguistic edginess when uttered. As such it aptly describes the Passenger Bill of Rights adopted by the Department of Transportation under the guidance of Secretary Ray LaHood. While it looks and sounds great to anybody that has had the misfortune of a lengthy airplane delay on the tarmac, in reality it is nothing more than a Trojan Horse loaded up with opportunities for unintended consequences that will undoubtedly exacerbate a relatively isolated problem. I know. This is the world in which I live as an airline captain intimate with airport delays and their root causes.

This spring, just when the travel industry kicks into high gear, the Passenger Bill of Rights will begin. It calls for all the things that reputable airlines typically provide their passengers; potable water, snacks, functioning toilets, and cursory medical attention. The sticking point in this edict is a 3 hour time limit imposed as the maximum an airline can keep passengers onboard during a delay. Breaching this 3 hour time limit is where the hammer falls on the airline to the tune of $27,500 per passenger. On the airplane I fly, the Boeing 767-300ER this would amount to a penalty of $5,940,000  before I ever pushed the throttles up for takeoff.

Ironically, in a preponderance of the documented cases of tarmac delays the FAA, ATC, DOT, respective airport authority, and weather issues have been the root causes, not the airline. With that said, the airlines will further foot the bill for, what is in many cases governmental shortcomings.

Currently, the Passenger Bill of Rights is just a Department of Transportation rule that can be politically overwritten in the future. However the Obama administration, along with Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) have vowed to shepherd this draconian measure through Congress thus transforming it from a departmental rule into a federal law. They will surely run for cover or blame another party when those unintended consequences happen.

Kate Hanni, founded after a miserable experience on a commercial flight. Her tireless and emotional pursuit of establishing this bill of rights is noteworthy but woefully misplaced. There is no doubt that her specific episode was dreadful, possibly avoidable, and maybe even the direct responsibility of the airline itself but it represents an isolated incident. She cites a figure of 300,000 passengers annually that become stranded on the tarmac. If that figure is correct it would seem, at first blush, to be a huge problem until you review the DOT’s own statistics. The Wall Street Journal (Government Flight from Hell, 12/29/09) published these stats;” … over the past 12 months, only 33 flights out of 9.6 million flown, were delayed by more than five hours on the tarmac. About 1,500 were delayed more than 3 hours …”. And one must then wonder how many of those delays were the direct result of airline malfeasance and not another external factor outside of their control. Perspective and context add meaning to an otherwise emotional debate. Activists would do more to alleviate future delays if they lobbied as passionately for Congress to properly fund bringing our entire Air Traffic Control system into the 21st century.

So, here’s my take from the Captain’s seat. It is not unusual to be anywhere from #40 or #50 in line for takeoff at JFK during the international rush hour. A taxi time of 1 hour and 30 minutes is not uncommon during times of good weather and my airline routinely plans for this contingency in terms of scheduling and fuel loads. This can easily extend to well over 2 hours if winds shift causing a runway change, runway closure, restrictions requiring increased airborne separation, or during times of snow and deicing. This new regulation now compels me to make a decision that is possibly not in the best interest of my passengers when I approach the newly imposed time limit; continue toward the runway or return to the gate. Remember, Secretary LaHood now has a $5.9 million gun pointing at my company’s wallet and I am the one that would grant him access. Under those terms I will elect to return to the gate. Then we’ll see what those 216 people bound for Europe really think about their new Passenger Bill of Rights.

This is just one example of an unintended consequence that will occur as a result of this political heavy handedness. Ironically this new passed ruling being lauded by as “the 2009 Christmas miracle” for airline passengers will do more to hurt them in the long run than it will to correct the problem. 

The view from the cockpit is infinitely different from that in seat 2A or 44G or from some congressional committee room. There are no emergency shoulders, exit ramps, or passing lanes on airport taxiways. Pilots are wired to be impatient and as such are a passengers biggest ally in getting you to your destination. When we’re on a taxiway we want to be taking off. When we’re in the air we want to be landing. Returning to the gate from a taxiway or allowing a bus to come to the airplane to pick up distraught passengers, as Ms. Hanni suggests, is as ludicrous as me cutting across the airport grass to jump to the front of the line for take-off. And those gates I should return to? They were occupied immediately after I left with the next wave of arrivals from all those places that passengers demanded the airlines fly to.

Sure, there is a problem that needs correcting when passengers are forced to endure lengthy ground delays on an airplane. But politicians and activists won’t solve it by levying punitive fines and imposing a feckless Passenger Bill of Rights.


3 Responses

  1. International flights will not be effected by this new rule. So I’m not sure what your point is?

    For a Domestic flight to sit more than 3 hours is unsafe. International flights, for which no data is required to be reported for time on the tarmac (so no one knows how often these long tarmac delays happen in international flights; are not included in our new regulations or the Senate law soon to be passed.

    As a pilot you should surely know the difference.


  2. Kate, no need to be snarky, I’m with you (!!!) in terms of seeing this problem mitigated as it would make my job as the captain who has to face the anxious crowd much easier ….
    I’m not sure what you use for criteria when you say a domestic flight is unsafe if it sits for more than 3 hours so I will have to use your line and say i’m not sure what your point was … Int’l delays by US carriers are certainly recorded and addresssed by the FAA on a company to company basis > I wsee them every time i walk into our operations facility … while int’l flights may not be in the initial installment of “the bill” there’s no guarantee it won’t show up at a later date after the first dose is swallowed…
    I appreciate your passion on this but will continue to feel srongly that it is misplaced … your group needs to be looking at root causes not the airline that for whatever reason doesn’t deliver a reasonable passenger’s expectation …a passenger seldom has enough information to identify the root cause for any delay … frankly there are times when even I have to search for the answer from the cockpit because the delay is not from anything we have done …. you simply cannot lay all the blame and therefore all the punishment on the airline when these delays happen … the governmental agencies and branches (FAA, DOT, ATC) that regulate an aircraft’s movement once it leaves the gate appear to get a free ride in terms of culpability in this set of rules, and why not as they are the ones who formulated the policy! … I was not able to find in my research anywhere in your appeals to governement officials any consideration to the fact that the current ATC system is antiquated and inadequate for the volume that it tries to handle … controllers to a great job as far as they can stretch the system but breakdowns occur, as does weather; neither of which an airline is responsible for. With that said, I reiterate that returning to a gate which typically is not available, or having a bus dispatched to pick up passengers that may want to disembark as the 3 hour restriction nears is not as operationally simplistic or realistic as it may seem to a passenger ….. and you as a passenger should surely know that difference!

  3. All that you say about whose really at fault is true, but taking a three hour tarmac delay in the back of ,say, a 747 and taking the delay while sitting in the cockpit are two very different experiences. I have done both (TWA) and I will tell you that treating passengers in that way regardless of the fault is inhuman. The airlines took the easy way out and got smacked down by government’s heavy hand.

    The problem is the airline’s ‘public be damned’ attitude and our antiquated ATC and airport infrastructure.

    Just think what’s ahead for us in healthcare……..

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