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Tarmac Task Force To Passengers: Sit Tight

A federal task force that spent nearly a year wrestling with ways to assist people delayed for hours aboard planes parked on tarmacs has finalized its recommendations - none of which requires airlines and airports to do anything.

The tarmac task force, as it is informally known, is expected to vote Wednesday on guidelines for airlines and airports on how to craft their own contingency plans for dealing with lengthy tarmac delays.

Among the problems: The task force was unable to agree on whether "lengthy" is one hour, two hours or 10 hours.

Kate Hanni, a task force member and passenger rights advocate, said Tuesday there is nothing in the draft document that requires airlines or airports to provide additional services for passengers stranded aboard airplanes going nowhere.

The report "is a set of best practices, but there's nothing enforceable where a passenger can say, 'I won't be held up for more than three hours or five hours or eight hours, or without a glass of water or a sandwich,"' said Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights.

"We were hoping at a bare minimum to come out of this task force with a definition of what is an extensive on-ground delay," Hanni said, but that didn't happen because the airline industry "doesn't want anything that is remotely enforceable."

The 36-member task force was created last December by Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to develop model plans for airlines and airports after several incidents in which passengers were stuck for hours before their flight took off or they were allowed to get off the plane.

Task force members said it quickly became apparent that the group - dominated by airline industry and airport representatives - would be unable to come up with a model plan acceptable to a majority of members.

"The airlines don't want it, and the airports - several of them major airports - believe they already have plans" to deal with passengers stuck aboard aircraft, said task force member Paul Ruden, a senior vice president at the American Society of Travel Agents.

Ruden said his main objection is that the task force does not ask Peters to require airlines and airports to develop contingency plans.

"I had hoped we would do more," Ruden said, adding that the recommendations might still be of use to smaller airports and airlines.

The Air Transport Association, the trade association for the airline industry, said the task force achieved its objective and some of its recommendations are already being adopted by the industry.

"The success of the task force clearly demonstrates that not every problem requires a new law or regulation, especially when it comes to operational and customer-service issues," Elizabeth Merida, a spokeswoman for the association, said in a statement.

A draft of the task force report recommends that:

  • Airlines update passengers delayed on tarmacs every 15 minutes even if there is nothing new to report.
  • A secure room be provided for passengers from diverted overseas flights so they can avoid having to go through security checks when reboarding an aircraft to their final destination.
  • When practical, refreshments and entertainment should be made available to passengers confined aboard aircraft awaiting takeoff.
  • Airlines should "make every reasonable effort" to be keep airplane restrooms usable.

    The Transportation Department's inspector general last fall recommended setting a limit for how long airlines can force passengers to wait on planes that have been delayed taking off.

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