Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Letter to Mary E. Peters DOT and Marion Blakey FAA

May 9, 2007

Hon. Mary E. Peters
US Dept. of Transportation 202-366-7202 202-267-5047
400 7th Street SW
Washington, DC 20590

Hon. Marion Blakey
Federal Aviation Administration
800 Independence Ave. SW
Washington, DC 20591

RE: Airline Passenger Stranding, Extended Involuntary Confinement in Aircraft on the Tarmac, Flight Diversions

Dear Secretary Peters and Administrator Blakey:

We are writing to ask that you take immediate action to stem the epidemic of airline passenger stranding and involuntary detention of passengers in aircraft on the tarmac for extended periods of time.

Since December 29th, 2006, there have been at least seven incidents involving over 150,000 passengers who have been involuntarily confined on airliners for periods of 4 to 9 hours or more, without proper water and food supplies, often in unsanitary to disgusting conditions, and without adequate air conditioning and ventilation. See enclosed accounts and news articles.

There are reports of passengers being deprived of needed medications, incidents of deep vein thrombosis as passengers are forced to remain in their seats for hours on end, toilets overflowing and inoperable, pets defecating, babies in need of changing and feeding screaming and crying nonstop, and of growing danger of tarmac rage as passengers desperate to escape this incredible captivity on the tarmac plot rebellion, after many hours of involuntary confinement, enforced by flight crews at the behest of airline management.

Delays and cancellations are now at record levels. According to DOT statistics 16,000 flights with approximately 1.6 million passengers were potentially victimized by diversions, cancellations and excessive tarmac delays in 2006.

As you know, these incidents have caused both the Senate Transportation Committee and House Aviation Subcommittee to hold hearings and for legislation to be introduced.

Secretary Peters, your representatives testified at these hearings that you were “concerned” but had decided to wait until yet another report is issued by the DOT in late June or July before deciding what if any action to take. Chairmen Oberstar, Inouye and Costello, Senators Boxer and Snowe, DOT IG Calvin Scovel and others have publicly faulted and chastised your agency for failing to take appropriate action under your statutory mandate or to properly follow up on the airline passenger customer rights programs as promised eight years ago.

Administrator Blakey, no one has heard from the FAA on this situation which clearly represents a health and safety hazard for passengers especially those in need of medication, the handicapped, infirm, elderly, young children as well as for pets aboard aircraft, and it is certainly causing stress and hardship for nearly all passengers affected.

We believe that legislation is necessary in part because you have failed to act under your existing authority to regulate the airlines so as to prevent, deter and punish unfair, deceptive, or unsafe practices as well as those practices causing unnecessary inconvenience to the traveling public. The response that the “market” will cure all ills has obviously failed to deter airlines from these practices, since as recently as three days ago new incidents have occurred affecting thousands of airline passengers.

On April 24th about 81 airliners were diverted by American Airlines from Dallas Fort Worth and passengers were detained on many of these aircraft involuntarily for well over 4 hours (in violation of that airline’s own advertised customer policies). Another incident took place in Detroit two weeks ago involving confining passengers on Spirit Airlines overnight.

We have credible reports that American Airlines falsely claimed that there were no hotel rooms available (when there was over a 50% vacancy rate in San Antonio at the time) so passengers were forced to sleep in school gyms on cots supplied by the Red Cross, and falsely claimed that there were no rental cars available (so passengers could not in some cases could continue their trips by auto).

There is a common thread that runs through all these intolerable incidents: Money. Airlines want to keep passengers’ money and not have to pay out for their stranding. By holding passengers on airliners when long delays or cancellations are unavoidable they avoid or reduce ticket refunds, having to pay for alternate transportation on other carriers, having to pay for lodging, local transportation, meals and other expenses long associated with strandings and mass cancellations. There is also a money incentive for flight crews to hold passengers on the tarmac, since most airline work rules do not pay the flight crews their full or sometimes any wages until the cabin door closes (ALPA and AFA have been silent on the issue).

Without agency action or new legislation, the only lawful recourse passengers have is to call 911, their physicians, and local police to beg for rescue, to notify the news media, and eventually sue for wrongful imprisonment (long after the fact).

David Neeleman, CEO of jetBlue, testified on April 20th that he saw no reason why passengers could not be permitted to deplane in cases of extended tarmac delays, and stated that jetBlue after its recent stranding debacles in February had reserved areas for this purpose at JFK where it has its major hub.

Current stranding practices are intolerable to the traveling public and will continue to tarnish the reputation of your agencies and your leadership unless and until appropriate action is taken. Accordingly, we must ask a simple question- What if anything are you doing to stop the intolerable confinement of passengers on the tarmac and related practices?

We would further ask that you meet with the undersigned in the next 10 days on this important and now urgent matter.


Paul Hudson
Executive Director
Aviation Consumer Action Project ( ACAP)
Member, FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (EX COM, Occupant Safety
PO Box 19029
Washington, DC 20036
410-940-8934 410-451-7051

Kate Hanni(707)337-0328Spokesperson and FounderCoalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rightshttp://strandedpassengers.blogspot.com/

Edmund Mierzwinski, Consumer Program Director U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) Federation of State PIRGs 218 D St SE Washington, DC 20003 v-202-546-9707x314 fax 202-546-2461 Note New Email edm/at/pirg.org BLOG: www.uspirg.org/consumer

Travis Plunkett
Legislative Director
Consumer Federation of America
1620 I Street NW
Washington, DC 20006

Laura MacCleeryDirector, Congress WatchPublic Citizen215 Pennsylvania Avenue, SEWashington, DC 20003Ph: 202-454-5130Fax: 202-546-5562