Delays Due to Clog Thanksgiving Air Travel

The day before the Thanksgiving holiday is among the busiest travel days of the year in the U.S. According to AAA, some 39 million Americans are due to travel at least 50 miles. Many will be in crowded airports where flights are bound to be either delayed or cancelled.

Charlie Isdell, director of aviation at Philadelphia International Airport, speaks with Renee Montagne.

Attention, Airlines: This Is Your Passenger Speaking

Stranded on a Plane? Five Survival Tips

  • Take pictures, videotape or voice recordings of what's happening. It could be useful later as proof of your ordeal.
  • Start a petition with fellow passengers and take it to the captain. Tell him or her you feel you're being held against your will and want to be returned to the gate.
  • Call the media and alert them to come to the terminal.
  • Call one of the hot lines run by airline passenger advocates and tell them what's going on.
  • Always take water and food on the plane with you — enough for 24 hours — as well as a change of clothing, a toothbrush and any medications you may need.

Eric Weiner

In Depth

Flights are increasingly delayed due to a variety of reasons. In a series of stories from Philadelphia International Airport, Morning Edition looked at air travel today and how it has changed over the years. Explore the series.

Judy Stern was furious. Earlier this year, she was stranded on an Alaska Airlines flight at Newark Airport. The plane, allegedly bound for Seattle, sat at the gate, doors closed, for more than four hours. She and her fellow passengers were given scant information, and no food or water.

In the past, there wasn't much that passengers in such straits could do except fume — and perhaps write a letter to the airline and the Department of Transportation once the ordeal was over.

Today, though, thanks to the Internet, cell phone cameras and other technologies, angry passengers have many more options. They're posting video of their airline nightmares on Web sites like YouTube. They're running telephone hot lines. And they're lobbying Congress.

Judy Stern called one of those hot lines while stuck on the plane. The hot line, run by the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, offered her advice, such as starting a petition among passengers and delivering it to the captain. (By that time, though, the plane had finally left the gate.)

Her call was recorded and logged and, along with thousands of others, used as ammunition on Capitol Hill, where advocacy groups are pressing for legislation that would hold airlines to higher standards of service and bar them from leaving passengers stranded for hours at a time.

Delayed Flights Top the List of Complaints

People have been "pushed beyond their normal limits, and they're becoming increasingly hostile and angry," says Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights. Hanni started her group in January, after she was stranded for more than eight hours on a plane in Austin, Texas. She already has more than 21,000 members.

The kinds of complaints that Hanni fields mirror those received by the Department of Transportation. Delayed flights consistently top the list, followed by mishandled baggage. (Way down the list are complaints about security — either too much or too little.)

This summer was the worst in a long time for air travelers. Airlines delayed more flights, lost more baggage and bumped more passengers than at any time in the past decade. Delays have subsided, as they always do after the peak summer travel season, but the anger has not. Hanni says her hot line fields about 70 calls a day from irate passengers — a number that is growing all the time.

"We're hearing nothing but horror stories," Hanni says. "People are scanning their travel documents at Kinkos, going to the trouble to let us know what happened. And these are totally rational, sane people."

Caught on Video

Perhaps the most powerful tool at the disposal of frustrated passengers is a video camera. One passenger recorded a seven-hour ordeal as his Delta Airlines flight from New York to Dallas/Fort Worth sat on the tarmac. The video documents it all — the sketchy P.A. announcements, the crying babies, the onset of darkness as the plane sat and sat. The footage was viewed nearly 100,000 times within the week after it was posted on YouTube in June.

Writing in the Travolution blog, Kevin May observed: "Previously, travel companies would often take a deep breath and hope things would blow over when a stroppy customer threatened to tell the world about their bad experience. However, the Internet allows customers to share every aspect of their holiday...at the click of a mouse."

Passenger advocates like Hanni sometimes resort to theatrics to get lawmakers' attention. In September, she staged a "strand-in" near the Capitol in Washington, D.C. She outfitted a long tent to resemble the interior of an airline and invited members of Congress to experience confinement, replete with smelly portable toilets.

Hanni's Web site offers a downloadable "emergency kit" with survival tips for stranded passengers — including how to make a diaper out of a T-shirt. She and her band have also recorded a remix of the 1965 Animals' hit "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," transforming it into an anthem for stranded passengers: "We Gotta Get Out of This Plane."

All of this, she claims, has put the airlines on the defensive. "They are in a huge response mode now and are trying to respond to what we are doing."

Airline executives argue that Hanni and her ilk are attempting to "legislate customer service," and are therefore bound to fail. The real problem is an antiquated air-traffic control system "that is essentially based on World War II-era technology," says Victoria Day, a spokeswoman with the Air Transport Association, the industry's lobby group.

Still, Hanni's efforts have won some grudging admiration from the industry. "Kate Hanni's regrettable experience and her advocacy have helped keep Washington focused on this issue," Robert Land, a senior vice president with JetBlue Airways, told The Washington Post.

Few Results to Show

What's less clear is whether advocates' efforts have made a difference. Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, has been fighting for passenger rights since 1995.

There's no doubt, he says, that the Internet has "allowed consumers to form groups quickly and unite in much larger numbers." And, yes, that has ratcheted up pressure on airlines — and on the agencies that regulate them — but with few tangible results.

In recent years, flight delays have grown worse, and passenger complaints have risen. If anything, though, airlines have grown less responsive, Hudson says.

The problem, he says, is not the airlines but the government agencies that oversee them: namely, the Department of Transportation. Consumers can file complaints with the agency, and those complaints are duly tallied and published each month. But no remedial action is taken against airlines, says Hudson. "They don't follow up," he says.

It all boils down to simple economics, he says. Demand for air travel has grown exponentially in recent years, while supply — as measured by the number of "seat-miles" — has decreased. A few years ago, airlines flew at about 55 percent capacity. Today, that figure is closer to 90 percent. In other words, airlines face less competition, and that means they can afford to ignore disgruntled passengers.

Occasionally, an airline fumbles service so egregiously, it captures the attention of the public at large — and of lawmakers. That's what happened in February, when an ice storm in New York caused, in effect, the meltdown of JetBlue. The airline canceled hundreds of flights. Some passengers were stranded on the tarmac for up to eight hours. Congress held hearings, and the airline's CEO resigned. The incident, though, did not lead to any sweeping reform.

"It was the exception that proved the rule," Hudson concludes.

A Holding Pattern over Capitol Hill

Congress is currently mulling over several bills that would mandate certain rights for airline passengers, including the right to receive timely and accurate information about delayed, diverted and canceled flights, and the right to food, water and clean bathrooms if stranded on the tarmac. But the bill is stalled, mainly because of one sticking point: a requirement that any plane sitting on the tarmac for three hours return to the gate. That, airlines say, would lead to more delays and canceled flights. Instead, the industry favors a "voluntary" passenger bill of rights; indeed, JetBlue has already enacted one.

Consumer advocates have found sympathetic ears in Congress, since lawmakers are among the most frequent fliers. They, too, have endured long delays and shoddy service. Yet that anger hasn't translated into legislation.

"They're sympathetic in a way, but they also have a symbiotic relationship with the airlines," Hudson says.

Also registering complaints: the White House. President Bush recently announced a few limited steps designed to smooth holiday air travel. This week, the Pentagon will open unused military airspace from Florida to Maine to create "a Thanksgiving express lane" for commercial airliners. Also, the Department of Transportation will propose doubling the "bump fee" that airlines must pay travelers who buy tickets but wind up without a seat.

Hudson, for one, says little is likely to change, given the current economic reality of the industry.

"Airlines don't compete on service," he says. "They compete on price."

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