Richard Drew  /  AP file
During a snow and ice storm on Feb. 15, JetBlue Airways passengers waited for flights, while onboard passengers were left waiting on planes for as long as nine hours at New York's Kennedy Airport. A report released by the DOT Tuesday makes several suggestions to deal with delays and burdened passengers — but proposed no penalties for failure to comply.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 9/26/2007 9:25:42 AM ET 2007-09-26T13:25:42

With the clamor rising for an “airline passengers bill of rights” amid horror stories of fliers left to stew in crowded planes for hours on the runway, Transportation Department investigators Tuesday recommended that airlines provide accurate on-time data for all of their flights, but proposed no new penalties to protect stranded customers.

In a report issued a little more than seven months after a Valentine’s Day ice storm grounded more than 1,000 JetBlue flights — marooning tens of thousands of passengers who complained that they ran out of food, water and patience with overflowing toilets — the agency’s inspector general essentially promised to tattle to Congress if airlines don’t follow the written procedures they already have in place.

Otherwise, the report offers no stick with which to prod the airlines to reduce runway delays and to ease passengers’ conditions on grounded flights. Instead, it advised studying the problem further and requiring airlines to give passengers more information ahead of time about the most unreliable flights.

Chain reaction from delayed takeoffs, landings
Transportation Secretary Mary Peters commissioned the report in February, two weeks after the JetBlue meltdown at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. It was the most severe in a series of incidents in which passengers complained that they had been stranded onboard planes backed up on runways for as long as 10½ hours, in many cases long after food and water had run out and toilets had been rendered useless.

The report identifies several causes for such incidents, most having to do with delayed takeoffs and landings that create a chain reaction, blocking other planes from using the airline system’s limited number of gates.

So far this year, 28 percent of flights have been delayed, canceled or diverted, which would be a record if the trend holds through the rest of the year, the report says.

Moreover, those initial delays are getting longer, and again, if the trends so far this year hold, 2007 would set another record, with takeoff delays reaching an average 57 minutes.

And the culprit there is reduced capacity driven by the financially troubled airlines’ determination to wring more efficiency out of their schedules. But the reduced load is being aggravated by increased demand, the report said.

By the end of 2007, compared with 2000, the major domestic airlines will have tried to squeeze 12 percent more passengers into 9 percent fewer seats on 9 percent fewer flights. “With more
seats filled, air carriers have fewer options to accommodate passengers from canceled flights,” the report concluded.

Passengers flood government with complaints
It is probably no surprise, then, that consumer complaints against U.S. airlines in the first seven months of 2007 have already surpassed the total number of complaints all of last year, according to the Transportation Department’s Air Travel Consumer Reports. Complaints relating specifically to delays, cancellations and missed connections more than doubled.

“Airlines, airports, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and DOT must work together to reduce long, on-board delays and minimize the impact on passengers when these delays occur,” the report says.

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But instead of holding the airlines’ feet to the fire with the threat of legal action or fines, the report instead calls for further study and offers a list of suggestions to address the problems.

The report calls on airlines, airports and the FAA to convene a task force to develop contingency plans to deal with lengthy delays, and it says the Transportation Department should require airlines to give passengers more information about individual flights’ on-time records ahead of time without being asked. Airlines should be required to set targets to reduce chronically delayed or canceled flights and draw up plans to take care of passengers burdened by a delayed flight.

But the report proposes no penalty for failure to comply, limiting itself to calling on the Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings to “advise Congress if the airlines retreat from such policies.”

House hearing set for Wednesday
Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel III is likely to be questioned closely about his report at a hearing Wednesday before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is considering legislation to enact an “airline passengers’ bill of rights” after more than 18,000 people signed a petition demanding better airline service.

The House has already passed a measure to ensure that passengers can leave a plane if it is stuck on the runway for more than three hours. That measure goes further than the new report, setting fines for airlines that don’t provide food and water to passengers facing long delays. But President Bush has threatened to veto it, saying it would cost the airlines too much and would stall creation of a new air traffic control system.

The uproar has been fueled by numerous incidents in which passengers were either stranded or abandoned in the past year:

  • In December, lightning storms in Dallas forced American Airlines to divert more than 100 flights to other airports, with some full flights parked on runways for nine hours.
  • Also in December, blizzards that closed the Denver airport led United Airlines to divert two flights to Cheyenne, Wyo. The following morning, the flight crew and attendants boarded the plane aircraft and departed, leaving all 110 passengers behind to take care of themselves.
  • In March 16, an ice storm caused numerous delays and cancellations in the Northeast, forcing passengers to endure long on-board delays. Several of them were members of the inspector general’s staff who were stranded for nine hours, the report said.
  • In July, severe weather forced a Continental Airlines international flight to divert from Newark, N.J., to Baltimore, where passengers were stranded on the tarmac for more than four hours.
  • In August, hundreds of US Airways passengers were stranded on board aircraft in Philadelphia because of severe weather, some for six hours.
  • Again last month, more than 17,000 passengers on 73 international flights in Los Angeles were stranded on board aircraft or in the terminal holding area for 10 hours because of a Customs Service computer failure.

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