Friday, December 25, 2009

Easing misery on the tarmac

Airline passengers will find some comfort in the new U.S. Department of Transportation rule forcing air carriers to show more concern when travelers are literally trapped inside an aircraft on the ground for hours because of delays.

We emphasize "some comfort." The rule doesn't require airlines to guarantee "adequate food and potable water" and "operable lavatories" until delays reach two hours. Until then, passengers must grin and bear it.

This is merely another symbol of the bad times overtaking the U.S. airways system and airlines that once ruled the world's skies. Meals with tablecloths and silverware are a thing of the past. Once-free refreshments on board now are sold. Some baggage is no longer free. Some airlines charge for pillows. Seat legroom is a painful squeeze. Unruly or drunk passengers are commonplace.

Although three-hour ground delays are rare (582 on 19 airlines this year) and statistically minute compared to more than 13,000 daily airline flights (77.27 percent are on time), misery on the tarmac can be incalculable and inexcusable, even a threat to the health of some passengers. Imagine the fury of passengers whose flight was held for 11 hours.

Airlines are not the sole cause. Throw in weather, unavailability of flight crews, outdated air-route traffic-control technology, crush of aircraft departures and arrivals and lack of airport gates, flights held for connecting aircraft, etc.

The skies may be friendly. However, on the ground, air travel at times can be perfectly hostile. The new rule should ease the misery, though real comfort is still not in sight.

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