IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How airlines can free captive passengers

TODAY Travel Editor Peter Greenberg says dose of common sense needed to avoid Jet Blue- like incidents

If you've done any travel by air, then getting stuck on a plane isn't a new experience for you. You push back from your gate on time, only to be delayed on the long conga line on the runway. Or you land, and the pilot informs you that there are no gates available. And, then, you sit.

And that's when there are NO weather problems.

The situation is compounded — exponentially — when bad weather kicks in.

Last week’s breakdown at JFK in New York with JetBlue where several planes full of passengers were stuck outside the terminal is just the latest bad incident. And it’s certainly nothing new. Just ask those passengers in Detroit who were stranded on the concrete up to nine hours back in 1999 by Northwest Airlines.

So what has happened in the last eight years to make things better? Not much. In fact, more than 50 years after the dawn of jet travel, the airlines and airports are still  paralyzed when it comes to a solution.

We can't control the weather. But we can control common sense. We can even employ common sense. But the question remains: Will the airlines actually do this?

False imprisonment?After the Detroit incident, Northwest found itself faced with a huge lawsuit accusing the airline of, among other things, false imprisonment.

Northwest tried repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, to get the case dismissed but with every attempt, the courts ruled the case had enough merit to  go to trial. And then, faced with an imminent trial date (and a very real prospect of losing), Northwest wrote out a check for approximately $7 million and settled the case out of court.  Why? The airline was terrified that if it went to trial  and lost, it would create case law —  a precedent — that could lead to more lawsuits.

In the meantime, with some legislators  proposing laws protecting  passengers, the airlines went to Congress and lobbied — successfully  — to let the industry regulate itself when it comes to travelers' rights.

So much for self-regulation.

Historically, airlines have operated under the little-shared corporate theory that it's all about airplane rotation and operational needs. Passengers are in second position. In fact, the chain of command at airlines dictates that the operations officials determine which planes move, when they move, and how they move, often in clear disregard of common sense.

And in recent years, as hub-and-spoke airlines dominate certain fortress airports, these same airlines have also become obsessed with jetways.

Last week's snow and ice storm is only the most recent example of this obsession. On Dec. 29, American Airlines, the largest carrier in the U.S., stranded more than 4,600 passengers. Planes were parked within walking distance to jetways, but passengers were not allowed off the planes.

And then, there was last week, with the largest carrier at JFK, JetBlue.

Once again, passengers were stuck on planes for hours, many in clear (and close) view of jetways, but were not allowed off their planes.

JetBlue responds
And in the wake of that meltdown, JetBlue announced Monday their own passenger bill of rights, complete with a sliding compensation scale of payments to passengers for departure delays and ground delays.

In the service business, what really makes the difference is not the delivery of service, but more often than not, how a company recovers when things go wrong.

But will JetBlue’s announcement make a difference in the long run? Will it be enough to salvage the airline’s reputation and, perhaps more important, will it actually work to solve these stranded/delay problems?

Some would argue that the more important issue is whether you can legislate customer service.

Just ask consumer advocate Ralph Nader. About 25 years ago, when he was unceremoniously bumped from a flight, he sued the airline for breach of contract. The result: a federal rule for airlines requiring denied boarding compensation for those passengers forced off flights because of overbooking.

And now, legislation is once again being proposed for a passenger Bill of Rights. Not surprisingly, the airline lobby is gearing up to fight the bill.

On one hand, my hope is that if the airlines would embrace some basic common-sense realities, legislation won't be needed. On the other hand, history indicates that unless there are rules imposing severe economic consequences associated with not employing common sense, nothing will change.

Is there a middle ground? Indeed, there is.

Consider this: You’re on a plane and it’s delayed on the ground. There’s no jetway available, or worse, there’s severe weather. Here comes the back-to-the-future solution. It’s two words. It’s simple. And, even better, it can be implemented immediately.


Just wheel them up, and let us off the plane. We’re all adults. And we should be offered the choice: either stay on the plane and wait, or opt to leave the plane and walk a few hundred feet to the terminal. The airline can even insist on a waiver absolving itself from liability in case of accident or injury on that “perilous” walk to the terminal. For most of us, it’s far more perilous to stay on the plane.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY's travel editor. His column appears weekly on