Friday, October 23, 2009

Tarmac delays ground the fight for passenger rights

Source: Washington Post

Tarmac delays ground the fight for passenger rights
By Christopher Elliott
Sunday, October 25, 2009

The approach of cold-weather season reminds me of tarmac delays.

Like the Northwest Airlines flights grounded during a 1999 blizzard at Detroit's Metro Airport, leaving passengers without water or working toilets for more than seven hours. Or the JetBlue Airways customers stranded for nearly half a day during an ice storm in New York back in 2007.

But what if those were the only memories that cold weather evoked?

No skiing. No eggnog. No chestnuts roasting on the open fire. That would be absurd, wouldn't it?

No more absurd than what has happened to the "passenger rights movement." In the past few months, a series of headline-grabbing tarmac delays has helped a couple of influential lobbyists convince the media and a few elected officials that tarmac delays are the No. 1 passenger rights problem in America.

Worse, they've convinced many travelers that tarmac delays are the only important passenger rights issue.

Don't believe me? Pull up any recent story that mentions a passenger's bill of rights, and it will inevitably refer to a proposal that would require a plane to turn back after a three-hour ground delay. I happen to disagree that such legislation would help anyone or that it could even be properly enforced, but that's beside the point.

The bigger question is whether this tunnel vision is helping the cause of airline passengers -- and how it might affect your next flight.

I think it goes without saying that other, far more important passenger issues are being overlooked. But I'll say it anyway: We're missing a lot. I asked author and consumer advocate Edward Hasbrouck to name his hot-button passenger rights issues, and alas, tarmac delays didn't make the list. What did? Truth in advertising, problems with federal preemption and failure to enforce existing consumer laws.

"Airlines routinely engage in practices that would constitute fraud if engaged in by any other business," he told me. For example, they sell tickets on partner airlines, giving the appearance that they are operating a flight, which is referred to as code-sharing.

Federal preemption of consumer protection laws, which allows airlines to ignore state consumer laws and consumer protection agencies, is another worry. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 opened that loophole, "and it has been a disaster for consumers," says Hasbrouck.

The U.S. Transportation Department's lack of involvement in consumer protection also ranks as a favorite, and it's an area of concern for me as a reader advocate. The way Hasbrouck sees it, the department is staffed by devout believers in a hands-off approach toward regulation and, specifically, enforcing consumer protections. "Those attitudes have got to go, which is unlikely to happen unless the people at the DOT get firm new marching orders from their superiors, either from the secretary of transportation or President Obama," he says.

Unlike tarmac delays, which affect a tiny fraction of air travelers, these issues factor prominently into everyone's flight. And that they are being ignored raises the question of who really benefits from the popular emphasis on aircraft delays, apart from a few media-savvy tarmac-delay activists.

I'm willing to bet that my friends in the airline industry, who insist that they oppose the new turn-back law, are quietly pleased that the tarmac lobby has hijacked the passenger rights cause. The movement is now conveniently contained, holding sparsely attended news conferences and pep rallies for passenger rights "stakeholders" in the Rayburn House Office Building.

That's not to say that the tarmac troopers don't have a valid point. There's no excuse for keeping a plane waiting for hours without giving passengers food or water. Anyone who has endured an extended delay on a plane can be forgiven for thinking it's the only thing that matters.

In the meantime, what do you do if you're stuck on a parked aircraft? Oddly, the media reports I've seen have fixated on the likelihood that a turn-back law will be passed -- it has a snowball's chance, in case you were wondering -- but have skipped the part where they help us actually fix the problem.

I had an enlightening conversation with Deborah McElroy, the executive vice president in charge of policy and external affairs at the Airports Council International-North America, an airport trade group, about the remedies available to stranded passengers. There are not many.

I've been asked whether there's an easy way off a parked plane, such as calling 911 and complaining that you're being held prisoner. McElroy said emergency calls are routed to local law enforcement agencies, which may pass your complaint along to airport police, but neither is likely to have the authority to force a jet to return. "Only the airport's federal security director, who is a [Transportation Security Administration] employee, has the legal right to order the plane back to the gate," she told me. You may be better off asking a crew member for help or, failing that, calling the airline.

Would a turn-back rule change anything? It might, she said. It might not. Meaning that the true cost of a passenger's bill of rights may not be just an unenforceable law, but also a long period of distraction from the truly important issues facing passengers.

Incident: Jetblue E190 at Bermuda on Oct 22nd 2009, flaps problem

Source The Aviation Herald

Incident: Jetblue E190 at Bermuda on Oct 22nd 2009, flaps problem
By Simon Hradecky, created Thursday, Oct 22nd 2009 22:26Z, last updated Thursday, Oct 22nd 2009 23:30Z

A Jetblue Embraer ERJ-190, registration N229JB performing flight B6-1703 from Boston,MA (USA) to Bermuda (Bermuda) with 79 people on board, was on approach to Bermuda's runway 12 descending through 3000 feet, when the crew reported they had a flaps indication, aborted the approach and climbed back to 5000 feet for troubleshooting. The crew could not resolve the problem and decided - after consulting with maintenance and dispatch - to divert to New York's JFK airport about 10 minutes later. While climbing back to cruise level the crew declared emergency requesting most direct routing indicating about 2:15 hours of fuel remaining at that point and the longest runway 31L/13R at JFK indicating, they'd have no altitude restriction for the cruise back requesting FL380. The airplane climbed back to FL380 and reached New York about 110 minutes later. JFK changed all other approaches from runway 31L to a VOR/DME approach runway 22L in order to facilitate the Jetblue Embraer heading for a LOC approach 31L with 4900lbs of fuel remaining. The crew subsequently performed a visual approach runway 31L, landed safely and vacated the runway without needing further assistance.

TXKF 221955Z 06007KT 020V080 9999 FEW033 24/16 Q1019
TXKF 221855Z 04007KT 010V070 9999 FEW030 24/16 Q1019
TXKF 221755Z 04007KT 340V080 9999 FEW030 24/16 Q1019
TXKF 221655Z 03009KT 360V060 9999 FEW030 24/16 Q1020
TXKF 221555Z 03009KT 9999 FEW030 24/16 Q1021
TXKF 221455Z 02010KT 9999 FEW030 24/16 Q1021