Passenger Bill of Rights: Be careful what you wish for.

It’s time to let the sun go down on this very bad idea.

Barbara Boxer in the Senate and Mike Thomspon in the House introduced separate bills intended to require air carriers to provide where “the departure of a flight is delayed or disembarkation of passengers on an arriving flight that has landed is substantially delayed,” the provision of (i) “adequate food and potable water,” (ii) “adequate restroom facilities,” (iii) “cabin ventilation and comfortable cabin temperatures,” and (iv) “access to necessary medical treatment.”

Congress to the rescue!

That doesn’t seem unreasonable, does it? It’s basically The Geneva Convention for prisoners, which you might feel like when your plane is number 45 for take-off at Laguardia, a not-so-rare occurrence.

But here’s the part that as a  passenger, will ruin your life:

The airlines would also be required to “provide passengers with the option of deplaning and returning to the terminal, or deplaning at the terminal” if “3 hours have elapsed after passengers have boarded the aircraft, the aircraft doors are closed, and the aircraft has not departed,” or “3 hours have elapsed after the aircraft has landed and the passengers on the aircraft have been unable to deplane.”

That means your fate as well as your travel plans and those of a couple hundred others rest in this man’s hands:

Why? Because back in seat 27-F, he looked at his watch and demanded, after three hours of waiting, his “right to deplane.” But what about your right, and everyone else’s, to make it to their destination, albeit three hours and one minute late? And if you have bought a downline connection on a restricted, non-refundable ticket

you’re really out of luck: no refund, no further travel–and no redress from the airline you’re vegging on the tarmac with for the past three hours. You’d better have trip insurance, because whatever you’ve spent on tickets and accommodations is now swirling around here:

And if you’re in the terminal, ready to board your flight, don’t act smug–he’s also in charge of your fate, too. Because if his plane is required to return to the terminal, guess whose gate it’s going to take? And guess whose outbound flight will be cancelled as a result, flushing hundreds more people’s travel plans? You will get to thank him when you’re both standing in the long, snaky line at the ticket counter waiting to get rebooked and ultimately, travel stand-by, competing with a couple hundred others for the dozen seats available that day.

That’s right, you are screwed too, and you haven’t even had a chance to sit on the tarmac for your three hours. But each airport and each airline has scheduled their gates as tight as possible to minimize costs. There likely is no gate for you to return to–unless some other aircraft is booted off to make room. Meanwhile, your downline connection is leaving for your destination without you.

Bub-BYE, downline connection!

That’s a shame. Being as completely self-centered as I am, I wonder what this means for me, the captain on your flight? What am I supposed to do, take a vote of passengers, asking who wants to join Mr. Snappy Dresser and return to the gate? Who, like this guy,

might have different priorities and travel standards than you? And who’s taking the vote–my over worked and underpaid cabin crew? Who counts the vote? Or can you even take a vote–the bill says “passengers” have the right to deplane. Not a majority, not any specific number, really. Nice.

What's a captain to do?

Actually, my part’s the easy part. Forget about a “vote,” because democracy ends at the jetbridge. I’ll do what I always do: apply common sense to the situation. Congress gave me an out anyway, proposing that passengers would not have the option to deplane if the pilot “reasonably determines that the aircraft will depart or be unloaded at the terminal not later than 30 minutes after the 3 hour delay” or “that permitting a passenger to deplane would jeopardize passenger safety or security.”

Typical: they give you a firm policy, then offer you a way out. Because the bottom line is, well, the bottom line: the airlines don’t want to spend a dime more than is absolutely required, and congress is reluctant to force any well-funded and lobbied businesses to spend anything. Besides, most airlines are bleeding red ink: there is no money for extra gates.

More gates and more staffing both on the ramp and in the terminal costs dollars the airlines won’t spend or simply don’t have, and congress isn’t willing to fund it through appropriations.

Doesn’t really matter, though, because there really is no silver-bullet, one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of delays or deplaning during delays. If you support the congressional efforts to impose a simplistic solution to a complex problem such as this, you better be ready for the consequences.

The anecdotal stories of eight hours on the tarmac with overflowing toilets and women giving birth standing up and claustrophobic insanity are appalling. But if you realistically consider side effects of  the “Passenger Bill of Rights” as a one size-fits-all solution, you may find your travel situation to be even more tenuous than it was before congress “fixed” the problem.

Passenger Bill of Rights? Be careful what you wish for.


Dept. of Shameless Self Promotion:

(well, it would be if anyone read this blog)

Free track from my solo CD. It’s called Firefly

Raggedy 1970s-style rock, released on iTunes, and in China, distributed by

Crank it up and enjoy.

25 Responses to “Passenger Bill of Rights: Be careful what you wish for.”

  1. Traveler X Says:

    Like the free download, thanks. Nothing will change with delays or passenger rights as long as the airlines continue to pour cash into their anti-passenger lobby, the Air Transport Association. Too bad for passengers–more bonuses for airline executives. Shameful.

    • No doubt and you’re right: it *is* shameful. If the airline executives budgeted as much for increased staffing as they do for lobbying against it, passengers and crew alike would have a better travel experience. Thanks for commenting.

  2. You really don’t care about anyone but yourself. It’s obvious that you’re going to make this into a labor issue and do some management-bashing. You’re worse than the executives. At least the are trying to stay in business. Unions suck.

  3. As much as I think SOME legislation is required, I completely agree that a one size fits all approach is a REALLY bad idea, especially since it is overkill in terms of deplaning..

    It would be too much to expect Washington to adopt a common sense approach – something like:

    If an airplane is delayed longer than 2 hours, the airline must provide the following – availability of potable water, climate control (temp in cabin between 65-75 degrees), 1 working lavatory per 100 passengers. If the airline cannot provide those, THEN they must deplane the passengers. Otherwise its at captain’s discretion..

    If a passenger wishes to deplane after 3 hours, and such can be done safely (namely the plane is still at the gate) and without disruption to expected flight times, they can choose to do so with the only obligation of the airline to be a flight credit for the amount of the originally purchased ticket, with no change fee for use.

    There, that was simple, practical, and easy. Which means it will never come out of DC.

    • I agree, and I think the airlines could make it happen: they’ve been doing a remote boarding operation with stairs and buses for their commuter affiliates since the late 1980s. They don’t want to commit the manpower or budget to such a contingency operation where at a designated area, a bus and mobile stairs could accommodate those wishing to deplane. But it’s a viable option. Thanks for commenting.

      • Or even more practically, use the remote option to supply the plane with water and food (if not on an active taxiway). Put that in play and extended the bailout time to 5 hours (and honestly, after 5 hours perhaps on a regional jet, even my desire to get where I am going has given up).

  4. I agree completely, I can just imagine a scenario where you’ve finally managed to de-ice, taxi towards the active ready to go when you have to turn around to let the genius off and wind up number 50 for departure. Good thing you have an out..

    Of course nobody with any sense would get off if departure was still possible within a reasonable amount of time, ’cause they’re sure as hell not going to empty out all the bags just to get yours off for you..

    Love reading the blog, would an RSS feed be possible? If it’s there I’m not seeing it.

    • You’re right–the bags are going anyway. And that’s the problem with a one-size-fits all solution: everyone must pay the price for one passenger.

      Thanks for your comment.

  5. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to have the airline provide civilized on-board conditions during an extended delay. But as an airline pilot, I’ll say what hundreds have said before me: captains, be a captain. Take care of your passengers no matter what the big bonus airline executives tell you to do.

    • By your post, I think it’s clear that you’re an F/O. JUST KIDDING. And I did say I’d do what has to be done for the sake of common sense despite regulations and management interference. Thanks for your comment and next time we fly together, crew juice is on me.

  6. I was going to bookmark your page because I like what you said. Then I got down to that noise you call music. This is a forum, son. That crap was awful at Woodstock and it doesn’t belong here. I won’t be back.

    • You’ll probably miss this reply because you won’t be back, but I’m pretty sure my Mom thinks my music’s trash, too. That’s how I know I’m on the right track. Thanks for commenting.

  7. Do you remember when Ellen Griswold said “Sit down and shut up or I’ll split your lip” to cranky Aunt Edna in the movie Vacation? Well, I wish this ability were extended to all flight crew during “substantially delayed flights.” No one wants to be in the situation, including that “horrid” flight crew denying you your passenger rights to keep some semblance of order amid know-it-all passengers who maybe fly once every few years but dammit WILL BE COMFORTABLE NO MATTER WHAT! They paid for their ticket, it is their God given right. The last time I checked it is not a right to fly. You purchase a ticket for the luxury of flying. Flying gets you from point A to point B much faster than you driving or taking a bus or train. When you purchase that ticket you agree to that carrier’s rules no matter the circumstances. If that means you have to go three hours without your Cheetos and Pepsi’s so be it. You will live. Please leave the snacks and beverages for those who really might need it for medical emergencies. In all honesty, if you were that concerned about needing aforementioned necessities you should have already had them purchased for yourself for the flight as they might not always be available to you in the case of turbulence where the flight attendants might not even be able to provide cart service. Should you need the restroom, follow the rules you learned on the playground – play nice and take turns. Don’t make the flight crew become your babysitters. It is a matter of simple human decency NOT needing a Passenger’s Bill of Rights.

  8. This article was well done. I have been looking for just this type of article.Thank you for this information.

  9. This blog was well done. I have been searching for just this sort of blog.Thank you for this information.

  10. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Heather_Poole: Why the passenger bill of rights might not be a good thing…(A pilot’s perspective Jethead…

  11. Deb Cheney Says:

    very well said. interesting to hear it from the crew’s perspective; there are a ton of things we in the back don’t know. all we know is we are getting claustrophobic (even if we have never been before), hot and we have to pee. to understand the ripple effect though puts a different spin on it. also: good response to the old guy who doesnt like your music! Funny that he doesnt continue to read the blog without listening to the music. der.

  12. […] tackling interesting topics such as why passengers should not use the first class lavatory to reasons why the passenger bill of rights might not be a good idea.   He’s definitely the kind of pilot that flight attendants are going to love.  Then […]

  13. […] 1. Congress. In an ill-conceived attempt to legislate a “one-size-fits-all” solution to largely anomalous and often anecdotal reports of airline tarmac delays, Congress enacted a law effective April 29th mandating severe fines for airlines with aircraft delayed longer than a specified time. But the law will have the opposite effect: instead of freeing passengers from tedious hours-long delays, this bill will create indefinite delays and cancellations of flights, stranding passengers enroute and at origination airports (for an in-depth analysis of the downside of this disastrous bill, click here). […]

  14. In my 21 years of flying the EAST Coast, (mostly DCA LGA Shuttle), 99.95% of our delays have been ATC or weather. We would always tell the passengers when delays were expected, and that once off the gate, we would not return to the gate, but would continue to our destination, unless the crew timed out. Most delays were in the 1 hour range, but I saw 3 plus hours.
    Now we return to the gate and cancel at 2 1/2 hours. We don’t push if long delays are expected, and cancel if delays are projected in the 2 1/2 hour range. No questions asked. Passenger re-accommodation? I don’t know how it is done.
    That is what the bill of rights got US.
    We don’t get paid if we cancel, and if we want to make up the pay, we don’t get much help from the company schedulers.

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