Robert Crandall parted company from his former industry colleagues and joined passengers rights advocates as they took their case to Congress, staging a hearing in a meeting room provided for the event by a House committee.
Crandall said he supports legislation pending in the Senate that would require that passengers be allowed to deplane after a three-hour wait. The bill makes an exception for instances when the pilot believes the plane will take off in the next half-hour or it might be unsafe to leave the plane.
"I think the airline industry should have led the way in responding to this problem rather than having resisted it," Crandall said. "Every responsible airline executive I know thinks these things are an outrage."
However, he said returning passengers to terminals likely will result in more flight cancellations and modest fare increases.
Since flights are increasingly full or nearly full due to airlines' cutbacks in schedules, passengers who opt to deplane may have difficulty finding seats on other planes and may be delayed longer than if they had continued to wait on a runway, Crandall said.
He recommended an initial four-hour time limit to give airlines time to make adjustments before ratcheting down to a three-hour limit in 2011.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., co-sponsor of a "passengers bill of rights" containing the three-hour limit, rejected Crandall's suggestion. There are "a lot of folks behind the scenes who don't want this legislation," Boxer said. "I'm going to fight for the three hours because it will get watered down - it always does."
The Air Transport Association, which represents major airlines, declined invitations to attend the hearing. The association has warned there will be more inconvenience and delay for passengers if a hard time limit is imposed.
Passengers right advocate Kate Hanni called that assertion a "myth." She said advocates only want passengers to be given the option to deplane every three hours, and that doesn't require the plane to return to a gate. She said airport people movers or other equipment could be used to help people leave planes still in takeoff queues.
Hanni, executive director of FlyersRights.org, pointed to the example of Sun Country Flight 242, which sat on the tarmac at Kennedy International Airport in New York for nearly six hours last month before it was allowed to take off for Minneapolis.
Of the 136 passengers aboard the flight, 96 were connecting through Minneapolis and most likely missed their connections and had to spend the night there before they could get other flights to their destinations, Hanni said. Those passengers might have been better off if they'd had an opportunity to get off in New York after it became apparent they would no longer make their connections, she said.
Two weeks earlier severe thunderstorms forced a Continental Express flight from Houston to Minneapolis to land in Rochester, Minn., where 47 passengers were forced to sit in a cramped plane for six hours overnight amid crying babies and a stinking toilet before they were allowed to deplane.
A Transportation Department investigation found that employees of a Delta Air Lines subsidiary - the only workers still at the airport - refused to make a gate available to the plane because the airport was closed and security personnel had gone home.