What's All This Then?

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Friday, February 23, 2007

It’s a good thing I wasn’t one of those passengers stuck on a Jet Blue plane for eleven hours. I would have gone berserk. I’m sure the rest of the passengers would have applauded my performance because for sure the plane would have gone back to the terminal to kick the crazy man off. I get irritated at a short confinement on a jet waiting to take off or waiting for a gate after landing. An hour would seem like an eternity to me - and I’m sure to a lot of other passengers.

It’s nice that Jet Blue has come up with a Customer Bill of Rights and will be handing out travel vouchers to compensate for a variety of potential future goofs. But it’s not nearly enough. Not by a long shot. They’re still talking about compensation for being stuck on a plane or in the terminal for hours!! Lots of hours. They miss the point. Passengers don’t want to be compensated for being locked in a jail cell for hours on end with 150 other people and without food or water or working toilets. They don’t want it to happen in the first place.

When commercial aviation was deregulated in 1978, things were supposed to improve for airline passengers through the magic of "market forces." Whether or not it accomplished its purposes is a matter of subjective opinion - that of the people who fly - not the airline "analysts" and "experts."

I’ve written about airlines a couple of times here. Once about the disingenuous advertising of flight times - with competing airlines trying to sell you on the idea that they could take off for the same city at the same time or fifteen minutes earlier than each other - an impossibility unless each airline had its own runway - parallel to all the others. And once about the sneaky way airlines advertise their fares.

The conclusion that I reached on both if these occasions was that airlines tend to be disingenuous in how they present themselves to the flying public.

Since the Valentine’s Day debacle, there has been talk of proposing "passenger bill of rights" legislation to force airlines to cut down on the number of hours they can hold people trapped in a plane - waiting to take off. Airlines "experts" pooh pooh such a proposal. They say that the Jet Blue Customer Bill of Rights is a good idea and suggest that other airlines will likely be forced to offer the same sort of program. But they say that the airline industry is far better equipped than the federal government to make decisions about how long and under what circumstances to hold passengers on the ground waiting for take off approval.

Oh yeah?

From what I’ve been able to observe, airlines operate on a par with doctors who triple book so that they won’t have an unprofitable moment in their day - but if an emergency arises, people can get backed up to the point where there is no place to sit or stand in the waiting room. At least a patient can walk out on such a ridiculous and thoughtless situation - as I have done on more than one occasion. The airline patient/passenger has no such option available.

The problem is a simple one. There are just so many gates at major airports. When an extreme weather problem hits, airlines have two options. They can cancel flights or they can do what Jet Blue and other airlines did during our recent weather emergency. They can pull away from the gates, get in line and hope that there will be a sufficient change in the weather to take off. Once in line - even if they wanted to return to the terminal - the chances are that there would be no gate available to unload passengers.

So called airline experts say that these kinds of decisions are best made by airline personnel - most importantly the pilots. Well maybe people who work for airlines would feel comfortable taking off in a plane being flown by pilots who have been stuck on the flight deck as long as they have been stuck in their seats - out of food - out of beverages - toilets not working - but I would want the engines turned off and the plane towed to some safe corner of the airport before I would let exhausted pilots who have probably already exceeded their allowable working hours in a given period put that plane in the air. Those hours sitting on the ground may not be flying hours - but I would lay odds the strain on the pilots is just as great.

The bottom line of course is money. Airlines will cancel flights of course - but if there is any chance that a scheduled flight can take off - they will push that chance to the limit.

The kind of time "restrictions" being discussed - by Jet Blue and by those proposing federal regulation - are ridiculous. Three hours. Five hours. They are still talking about subjecting passengers to something approaching jail confinement for hours on end - just because their system is so damned screwed up. With no federal regulation - it’s open season on nonsense. As I wrote on April 26, 2003 (link above) competing airlines advertising flights from one city to another at the same time - or worse yet - trumpeting that they will leave 15 minutes before the competition - are lying to you. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to realize that with X number of gates, Y number of planes leaving those gates one after the other to proceed down Z number of taxi ways to the active runway - is going to result in a long line of planes, inching forward for who knows how long before they reach the runway and are cleared for take off. And if there are weather problems - pick your multiplier to estimate how long any plane in that line will sit on the ground.

There needs to be strict regulations. No plane should be allowed to taxi away from a gate without assurance that it will be able to take off within 30 minutes. An hour at the most. The idea of restricting the time that passengers can be trapped on the ground for three, four or five hours before the airline will offer compensation - or, in the case of proposed legislation - before the pilot will return to a gate or allow passenger to de-plane and maybe get back to the terminal in a bus - is ridiculous.

The major regulation that is needed of course, is one that will restrict the number of flights that can take off or land - and thus not have the problem of more planes than available gates - to pull into or to wait at until there are favorable take off conditions.

To a certain extent, the FAA exercises control over the number of operations during daylight and early evening hours at a handful of the nation’s busiest airports - but that number of operations continues to go up and up - and with almost any kind of weather problem - delays are inevitable. But there are different kinds of delays. If the choice is between waiting in the terminal or in a plane that might sit for three, four, five hours or more on a taxi-way, I think most people would prefer the freedom to move about in the terminal and have access to restaurants and bathrooms that do not have overflowing toilets.

Jet Blue says the insult that it inflicted on passengers on Valentine’s Day will never happen again. But at the same time, it’s talking about compensating passengers for delays on the ground of three, four or five hours. Sitting in the plane. On the tarmac. Running out of food. Air getting staler by the minute. No access to the bathrooms.

So my question is this. Will Jet Blue and/ or its CEO David Neeleman, be indicted as accessories to murder after the first deranged passenger loses his or her mind and self control somewhere between hour four and five and kills the person sitting next to, in front of or behind him?