Image: JetBlue plane
Henny Ray Abrams  /  AP file
JetBlue made headlines by holding passengers hostage for more than 10 hours on one of its planes in New York during the Valentine's Day snowstorm.
By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 5/8/2007 1:41:59 PM ET 2007-05-08T17:41:59
OPINION

In February, JetBlue made headlines by holding passengers hostage for over 10 hours on one of its planes in New York. A month later, a Royal Air Maroc flight from JFK to Casablanca held its passengers on board for a record 16.5 hours before finally canceling the flight.

While these times are extraordinarily long, the practice of retaining passengers is an offense committed by most airlines at some time or another. These types of incidents happen every year, but nothing is ever really done about it. Sure, talk has resurfaced about a Passenger's Bill of Rights, but who would enforce it? And what can be done about the underlying problems that cause these nerve-racking runway waits?

Why does it happen at all?

1. Weather is the usual culprit. Snow, ice, lightning, strong winds and hail all create havoc even for the most efficient airport operations. Most of the passenger-hostage situations are weather-related.

2. Traffic problems can create space shortages at airports. It's a domino situation: Incoming flights cannot pull up to their gates because they are occupied by other airplanes, so the incoming airplane must wait on the runway.

3. Delays can create unbelievably long lines for takeoff. In fact, I was once on a flight that was 165th for takeoff. But returning to the gate is almost always a no-no. Why? Because the flight will lose its place in the line.

4. Construction projects. Airports are always undergoing construction and renovation. Closing all runways except one at a busy airport like O'Hare or Hartsfield at rush hour will definitely make passengers feel that they count for nothing.

5. Alternate destinations. When your flight is diverted from your intended airport to another one, you will have plenty of other diverted aircraft for company. The new destination is often unaccustomed to handling a large volume of aircraft and the mess just grows from there.

6. Aye, aye, Captain. Ultimately, it is all up to the captain. He — or she — has the final say about whether you return to the gate or not.

As a flight attendant, I have been snowed in at the Denver airport, stuck at Dallas-Fort Worth for days, and trapped on an O'Hare flight for six hours. I have also been on many flights where we held passengers for three hours or more against their will. So, in a sense, I have been both hostage and kidnapper.

There are two ways to look at the situation.

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1. There should be an airline-wide maximum wait time for passengers already on board an airplane. Airlines cannot keep treating passengers like cattle and expect complacency.

2. The goal of the airlines is to get passengers from point A to point B as quickly and as safely as possible. Any return-to-gate requirement by the government will have a negative effect on those passengers who really want to get to point B. Also, any compensation awarded to "hostage" passengers will be paid through price hikes that other passengers will pay for.

My position is somewhere in the middle.

With the already-overpopulated skies becoming more crowded each year, and knowing full well that this problem will continue, I offer the following tips for dealing with runway hostage situations.

1. Don't stop. If you can pay a little bit more and fly to your destination nonstop, you should do so. Your chances of getting stuck on an airplane increase immensely with every intermediate connection.

2. Keep informed. Insist to a flight attendant on 30-minute updates from the pilots and ask for a specific return time to the gate.

3. Be firm but stay calm. Feel free to express your concerns but don't get hostile. Hostility might get you back to the gate, but it could also land you in jail.

4. Take your business elsewhere. If you have suffered an extended runway delay more than once on one airline and have not received adequate explanation or compensation, change airlines. Yes, this happens to all airlines, but it seems to happen to some more than others.

5. Get a temperature adjustment. If you are suffering because of the onboard temperature, and the crew is unable to rectify the situation during a long hold, demand that the pilot either fix it or let you off the airplane. I have been on way too many flights where the humid heat of summer or the cold bite of winter has made the cabin environment unbearable.

6. Try to sleep. You could get all upset and let this ruin your trip, or you could sit back and try to get some shut-eye. Don't forget to use your earplugs in case the pilot makes his every-30-minute rolling delay announcement.

7. Bring back-up grub. Many airlines carry very little food these days, so you find yourself not only stuck but starving, which only aggravates the situation. Bring a back-up bag of trail mix or a nutrition bar that can get you through the stomach growls.

8. Alert the media. If you are stuck on an airplane for more than four hours, call the news. The media love stories like these and the airlines hate this type of attention. In fact, I've often wondered why passengers held forever on the runway don't just call 911 and report a hostage situation. Is there any law against it?

9. Drive instead. If airport conditions look iffy, and your flight is less than an hour long, you might want to think about driving instead. Often, if you add up the time it takes you to get to the airport, go through security, fly the short route, and rent a car, you could already be there. You might want to think about this even if it looks like your flight will come and go on time. Just because you're traveling doesn't mean you have to fly.

10. Demand money. After such an ordeal, demand a cash payment, travel credit, mileage points or other form of compensation from the airline to force the company to understand that you have been treated badly. Do this not only for yourself but also as a blow for passenger rights.

Good luck out there. I hope these tips help, and I'll see you on the runway.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.

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