By Joe Brancatelli
February 10, 2010 -- The good news: Real, honest-to-goodness federal "passenger's rights" regulations come in April. Airlines won't be able to hold you hostage on a plane unless they are willing to risk huge fines.

The bad news: It took 11 years to get it done.

The worse news: I really have to go back to 1999 to explain it all, so please stick with me as we plow through exposition as thick as Snowmageddon.

In January of 1999, Northwest Airlines callously stranded thousands of flyers on dozens of aircraft during a snowstorm at Detroit-Metro Airport. The outrageous incident led to televised Congressional hearings, the introduction of the first proposed passenger's rights legislation and furious backpedaling from the airlines and the Air Transport Association (ATA), the airline-industry trade group.

By the end of that summer, however, the ATA has headed off the passenger's rights bills and ducked new regulations from the Clinton era Department of Transportation with the oldest dodge of all: the pledge of voluntary action. The industry's so-called Customer First initiatives were transparently phony and useless exactly because they were voluntary and because the airlines explicitly disavowed any responsibility for acting on their promises. And that's not the view with more than a decade worth of hindsight: Even then, everyone knew the Customer First plans were worthless, a topic I covered in with some passion in a contemporaneous column.

However, it took the Transportation Department's inspector general until late 2006 to officially call the Customer First initiatives a fraud. The audit of the airlines' subsequent inaction and deceit was scathing. By then, hardly anyone remembered what airlines had promised to do in the first place or Northwest's appalling 1999 actions that had started the kerfuffle.

Then came a moment you wouldn't believe if you saw it in a B movie: Just before New Year's Day 2007, American Airlines diverted dozens of flights to smaller airports when a thunderstorm lashed its hub at Dallas-Fort Worth. American then abandoned the diverted aircraft. One of the misdirected planes spent more than eight hours on a tarmac in Austin. Passengers had no food or water, the toilets overflowed, and travelers received no useful information about what was happening to them.

Thus was born Passenger's Rights: The Sequel. Kate Hanni, one of the hostages on the Austin flight, launched a grassroots movement on behalf of passenger's rights. Being bright, photogenic, and innately media trained, she came to the attention of the TV news networks. Then, unbelievably, in true B movie melodrama, it happened again. And again. On Valentine's Day 2007, JetBlue stranded thousands of passengers on the tarmac during an ice storm at its hub at Kennedy Airport in New York. After promising its Austin diversions could never happen a second time, American Airlines nevertheless stranded dozens more diverted flights after another storm crippled its DFW hub.

That's when the B movie became a parody of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. While the airline industry simultaneously claimed there was no problem and that they could once again voluntarily fix the problems that didn't exist, Hanni convinced several lawmakers to new passenger's rights legislation. Unfortunately, the bills her allies proposed were porous and ineffective. Hanni herself became a made-for-television, instant-expert-on-anything drone. Her legislation failed in the Congressional sessions of 2007, 2008, and 2009.

But while Hanni spun her wheels, airlines continued to hold passengers hostage on more and more flights. Depending on whose numbers you believe, more than a thousand flights a year were being held incommunicado on airport tarmacs for more than three hours.

Then came August, 2009, and Continental Express Flight 2816. During a patch of bad weather, the tiny regional jet was diverted to Rochester, Minnesota, and spent the night on the tarmac. Continental Airlines, whose name was on the plane, didn't act forcefully enough to convince its commuter partner, ExpressJet, to get the aircraft to the terminal. And the airline in charge of overnight operations in Rochester, Mesaba, refused to open the terminal and let the passengers on Flight 2816 disembark.

This time, however, the Department of Transportation acted. It slapped a combined fine of $175,000 on the three carriers, the equivalent of more than $3,700 for each of the 47 passengers who spent the night in Rochester. Airline executivess were stunned by the severity of the fine. Passenger's rights advocates, including Hanni, took the credit--even though many of them previously claimed that DOT action would never be sufficient to stop excessive "tarmac holds."

Finally, just before Christmas, a decade after Northwest Airlines abandoned flyers in Detroit, the DOT imposed new rules. To Hanni's everlasting credit, the department's regulations essentially codify the major thrust of her unsuccessful legislation: Airlines operating domestic flights must permit passengers to disembark a flight if they have been held for three hours or more without a departure. The only exceptions: safety or security concerns or if air-traffic controllers inform the pilot that disembarking passengers or returning to the gate would disrupt airport operations. Some other portions of Hanni's proposals, including making food, water, and lavatory facilities available to stranded passengers, are incorporated into the DOT rules, too.

But the Transportation Department put a financial incentive into its regulations: Airlines can be fined as much as $27,500-per-passenger if they violate the new rules. As the DOT's penalty in the Minnesota case last summer proved, it's not bad publicity or photogenic activists that the airlines fear, it's the threat of having to pay cold, hard cash if they hold passengers hostages.

Will the new passenger's right regulations end long tarmac holds and stop airlines from treating its customers like chattel? Hard to say. But we do know that the airlines are scrambling to put new procedures in place to avoid the possibility of getting slapped with punitive fines.

That, at least, is a start. Eleven years late, perhaps, but a start nevertheless.

The Fine Print...
The DOT order also "prohibits airlines from scheduling chronically delayed flights." That provision is probably toothless because it won't stop airlines from dodging the rule simply by renumbering flights with bad on-time ratings. The carriers are also disputing a provision that would require them to post on-time ratings for each of their domestic flights on their respective websites.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.