Monday, August 24, 2009

The Flight Delay Dilemma

The jury is still out on whether enacting federal "Passengers Bill of Rights' legislation is the best way to solve the chronic problem of flight delays and airport strandings in U.S. domestic travel. But it is increasingly obvious that the issue - stoked, most recently, by a 5.5-hour delay on the tarmac at New York-JFK airport of a Sun Country flight headed for Minneapolis-St. Paul and a 4-hour delay on the runway at JFK of a Delta flight headed to Minneapolis-St. Paul - that America's crisis-racked airlines are facing intense scrutiny in the court of public opinion.

Corporate and business groups that have traditionally opposed greater federal intervention on the grounds that there would be dire unintended consequences, and that flying is best left to airlines, themselves - are lining up for a seat at the table. The thinking behind that is that it's better to have a say in writing regulation, if any, than standing by to be told what it will be.

Right now, legislation is pending in both the Senate and the House that would, among other things, allow passengers being held on a plane that has pushed back from the gate for more than 3 hours to get off the plane, providing it is deemed safe by the captain.

One of the most active business groups spearheading a 'stakeholders' meeting' in Washington, D.C. next month is the Business Travel Coalition, an organization of corporate travel planners whose member companies set up trips for corporate road warriors.

The BTC's latest salvo reads in part:

"To focus the debate on root causes, such as bad weather or antiquated air-control technology, is to avoid discussing the real problem: which is how airlines respond to irregular operations...According to Department of Transporation Bureau of Transporation Statistics, for the 8 months ending May 31, 2009, 578 flights experienced tarmac delays or 3 hours of more.''

Continues the BTC:

"Airline industry spokespersons characterize the aforementioned 578 flight delays of 3 or more hours as statistically insignificant, even though tens of thousands of passengers were impacted. The argument that extended ground delays are statistically insignificant is lost on the daughter who had her 85-year-old father parked in a hot metal tube for five hours in August; this is first and foremost a health and safety issue.''

That hits the nail on the head.

The Air Transport Association, the trade group for American carriers, has been invited to the Washington meeting, which will be keynoted by former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall on Sept. 22.

I don't have the solomonic wisdom to know if the legislation pending in Congress is the right way to solve this decade-old problem. But while U.S. airlines understandably have a lot on their minds with swine-flu fears, weak consumer demand and volatile fuel prices, they would be wise to participate in such brainstorming sessions, lest they be seen as the problem instead of the solution.

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