Stuck on the Ground Again

How many more stories like this one are we going to have to hear before Congress does something? The fundamental problem is that it is cheaper and simpler for the airlines to keep passengers crammed in deep vein thrombosis-inducing seats for ten hours on the slim hope that they might be able to take off than to allow them to get off the plane. Never mind what the passengers want.

Here’s a modest proposal: any plane that spends two hours on the ground after passengers have boarded must return to the terminal and disembark. No exceptions. No leeway for “We’re now tenth in line” or “We think the weather’s clearing up now. Just a few more minutes.” If the plane isn’t taxiing down the runway, it goes back to the terminal. If the gates are full, then pull up the stairs and let the passengers walk. This would give passengers who want to leave or make other arrangements the opportunity. Other passengers could at least walk around, use a full-sized toilet, get something to eat or drink, and so forth.

Frankly I’m hesitant to suggest additional regulations for such a marginal industry that’s usually about one broken propeller away from bankruptcy, but sometimes the egregious nature of an industry’s own incompetence and customer hostility demands action, even if it pushes a marginal company or two over the edge.


Barbara Boxer (D-CA) plans to introduce legislation in the Senate for a passengers’ bill of rights. Mike Thompson (D-MT) is introducing it in the House. Airline lobbysists will doubtless try to have it watered down, but maybe if we can generate enough heat and light then it can be pushed through with some teeth.

You can sing a somewhat vague petition about this if you like.

One thing we cannot allow is for the airlines to claim “safety reasons” or “security reasons” for not allowing passengers to debark. This is a loophole big enough to fly an Airbus A380 through since the airlines will be the one who decide what’s safe and what’s not. I’m reminded of the riverboat gambling bill in Louisiana a few years back which required boats to sail before gambling unless navigation conditions prohibited it. Wouldn’t you know it? Every single day the captain noticed strange, submerged objects no one else could see that prevented him from sailing.

Here’s the deal: two hours on the plane without leaving the ground. The flight disembarks, and passengers are entitled to a refund. No exceptions.

4 Responses to “Stuck on the Ground Again”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    It’s not so simple. You can open the doors and pull up the stairs, but what then? Then you have hundreds of untrained civilians wandering around the tarmac, an invitation to all sorts of disasters — and the inevitable followup, lawsuits. Plus security (such as it is) goes absolutely all to hell, not to mention that the ticketing system isn’t designed to have people get on, off, and on again (and possibly off and on a third time).

    If anything, the airline should have sucked it up and simply canceled the flights altogether when the weather situation became clear (which was the day before). When your tow equipment is going to freeze to the ground (a predictable occurrence, given the fuss made over this storm), you can’t send anyone anywhere and shouldn’t even try.

  2. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    I’ve walked off enough stairs on enough planes to know it’s possible. And if the ticketing system isn’t designed to handle reboards then it needs to be fixed so it is. If it becomes enough of a pain for the airlines if they have to unboard flights, then they’ll be less likely to board them in the first place in inclement weather or overcrowded conditions. This would be a good thing.

  3. John Cowan Says:

    It’s not about whether it’s possible, it’s about how you do it. When I was a kid there were no jetways yet, but there were employees there conducting you from gate to plane or plane to gate, and nobody wandered off. You’re describing something very different: a right to get off the plane (and then to get on) any time over a period of possibly hours, while the plane waits. Or if you don’t mean that (your text is ambiguous), then what of the people who want to wait until the plane actually does leave?

  4. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    There are a lot of details we could play with, such as exactly how long it takes before the plane disembarks, though two hours does seem like plenty enough time to me. However I do envision that the entire plane disembarks. Perhaps if a gate is available then passengers who wish to stay on the plane may do so. Somehow I don’t think that’s likely to be very many.

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