Voluntary imprisonment?

Aug. 31, 2009

by Ivan Raconteur

Imagine, if you will, being trapped in an enclosed space, jammed cheek by jowl with a bunch of strangers.

You are all stuck in tiny, cramped chairs with no leg room. The air is stale and tinged with the stench of sweat and fumes from the disgusting, filthy toilet facilities which have ceased to function.

Around you are screaming children and complaining stressed-out adults.

You have had little or no food during your ordeal, and your muscles are beginning to cramp from lack of movement.

Your captors have given you only limited information about why you are being held prisoner, and you have no idea when you will be released.

I suspect that, if asked, most people would not be in favor of putting themselves in such a situation.

A lot of people would be flat out against it, and yet, every day, people buy tickets for a lottery that could win them just such an ordeal.

The sellers of these tickets don’t call them lottery tickets. They call them airline tickets, but a lottery is what it is.

From January to June this year, 613 planes were stranded on tarmacs for more than three hours, their passengers held prisoner by the airlines.

This may seem a small number of flights compared to the number of planes that are in the air each day, but for passengers on those flights, statistics won’t bring relief.

The passengers on Continental Express Flight 2816 were among these stranded passengers.

They were forced to sit on a plane in Rochester for more than six hours.

That doesn’t sound like much of an express.

In view of this, and many other examples, some have called for legislative intervention.

The airline industry opposes such suggestions, saying we should not try to legislate customer service.

That makes me smile.

It also makes me wonder why the government should have to get involved in the first place.

One assumes that even ordinary customer service would dictate that companies refrain from taking their customers prisoner and treating them like cattle bound for the slaughterhouse.

As is the case with so many problems these days, there has been more finger-pointing than there has been working together to find solutions.

Some blame the airlines.

The airlines blame the government. They say the problem is the fault of our antiquated air traffic control system, which still uses World War II era technology.

Others say it is the fault of the passengers, on the grounds that there are too many of them.

There was a time, not so long ago, when airlines averaged about 55 percent capacity. By 2007, that figure had climbed nearer to 90 percent.

As a result, any problems or delays have a domino effect on other travelers on other flights.

As belt-tightening continues, some also say that airlines have too few aircraft and crews in reserve, which reduces their ability to respond when problems arise.

The system is approaching capacity, and the Federal Aviation Administration predicted in 2007 that flight delays would increase by 62 percent by 2014.

Some industry representatives have said they need to keep passengers trapped on planes so they don’t lose their flight slot. This suggests that a flight scheduled to take of at a certain time can still be waiting for its flight slot five or 10 hours later. It seems like it would make more sense to coordinate the scheduled flight time with the scheduled flight slot so that the plane can leave when it is supposed to.

If the problem, as some have suggested, is that too many flights are scheduled too close together, perhaps it would make sense to spread them out more. Airlines say consumers demand peak flight times, but if they planes aren’t going to leave on time anyway, what is the point of scheduling them that way?

Talk about passengers’ rights has been circulating since the 1990s, but little has changed.

Highly-publicized examples of passengers being kept on planes for nine hours or longer have led to discussions about limiting the time passengers can be held on planes, but this, too, has met with opposition.

The state of New York enacted a “passenger bill of rights,” that would have required airlines to provide luxuries such as food, water, fresh air, and working toilets to passengers who are delayed on the tarmac for more than three hours, but the legislation was tossed out by a US appeals court, which ruled that states cannot make laws regulating airlines.

Locally, in response to a recent flight from New York to Minneapolis during which passengers were kept on a plane for six hours, Mendota Heights-based Sun Country Airlines adopted a policy limiting the time passengers can be kept waiting on the tarmac to four hours.

The move seems more symbolic than substantive, and four hours is still a long time to be stranded in a plane.

If we add it all up, it appears that states can’t fix the problem, the federal government won’t fix the problem, and the airlines would rather point fingers than solve the problem.

A new air-traffic control system that uses new satellite technology and could help to reduce congestion promises to be expensive, and probably won’t be implemented for years.

For now, the only sure way to avoid being held hostage on an airplane is to take a car, or some other alternative form of transportation, instead.