Seattle Times
December 25th, 2009

Obama’s gift of humane treatment to airline passengers held prisoner on tarmac
The Obama administration jumps into the fray over long waits for airline passengers on the tarmac. Huge fines will begin in the spring, and it’s the right thing to do.

AIRPLANE passengers are not cattle. And they should not be stuck on the tarmac for six, seven or even 10 hours without food, water and clean facilities. There ought to be a rule against such treatment of customers. Reasonably, there will be.

The Obama administration announced a Christmas gift of sorts for U.S. airline passengers traveling on domestic flights: stiff penalties on airlines that unduly keep passengers stranded on the tarmac without food or water or allowing them to disembark.

According to a new federal rule taking effect in the spring, passengers cannot be kept longer than two hours without food and water. By similar logic, a plane sitting on the tarmac for three hours has to offer passengers a chance to leave the aircraft. Fines proposed by Ray LaHood, Obama’s transportation secretary, are steep — $27,500 per passenger — and they should be.

LaHood referred to the new rules as the president’s passenger bill of rights, though administration fines are separate from efforts in Congress to protect the flying public and do not require congressional approval.

Obviously, new rules on one end of flying create trouble at another end. Airlines worry they will have to abandon a place in line for takeoff, return to the gate and have baggage removed. They may have to de-ice an extra time. Crews may not be able to remain with a flight if a delay is prolonged.

All of these present huge headaches for the airlines, a hassle that should not be understated. But the equation of flying involves give and take. As airlines press passengers to pay for more things a la carte — checked luggage, meals, blankets and, (who knows?) restrooms — customers also have needs.

Sitting on a plane for an elongated period of time can aggravate numerous medical conditions. Health organizations have said that the risk of such things as pulmonary embolism doubles after four hours of immobility.

Food, water and clean restrooms are essential, along with the right to move around. The rules require some adjustments, but flying will improve over time because passengers will be treated humanely.