- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sitting around in a commercial jet on the runway for an extended period while airline officials dither over whether to take off, cancel the flight or wind their watches isn’t all that usual, but it isn’t all that rare, either. When it does occur, it can be maddening, dangerous and almost criminally negligent.

That’s what happened recently in Rochester, Minn., when 47 passengers were stranded overnight in a Continental Airlines Express flight to Minneapolis that turned into everyone’s worst dream: overflowing toilets, no food or water, while those in charge made up a silly story as to why they couldn’t be let off the plane and into the terminal. It’s a wonder that some of the passengers didn’t insist on checking into the famous Mayo Clinic, which is headquartered in Rochester.

Now the Transportation Department is looking into whether any laws were violated in this exercise in stupidity. If there weren’t any violations, there should have been, and Congress needs to make this kind of travesty go away forever except under the most exigent circumstances.

It hasn’t been all that long since JetBlue pulled the same trick and has been paying for the bad publicity ever since. The blame lies squarely on Continental and the company ExpressJet Airlines, which operates the flight for the larger carrier, though authorities from the airport could have intervened.

Transportation Sec. Raymond H. LaHood said his department means to ensure this never recurs. Well, good luck. While he is at it, there should be some way of assuring passengers that those actually assigned to the flight — pilot and attendants — have some common sense even on regional flights where wages are well below what transcontinental carriers pay their people. One passenger reported that a flight attendant yelled out during the first hour if anyone wanted water and then was not heard from again.

What must have been really galling, aside from periodic reports issued from the cockpit about possible take off, was the excuse provided by ExpressJet that passengers couldn’t be let into the terminal because the security personnel had left for the day and there was no one to recheck the baggage. The airport’s manager quickly blew a hole in that nonsense, saying it just wasn’t true and that a secure area with vending machines and other amenities, including decent restrooms, could have easily been provided.

The incident helps define what has happened to the airline industry in its efforts to meet rising fuel costs and other drains on revenue since deregulation over routes went away some 40 years ago. What used to be a pleasant experience has become a textbook study in curtailed flights that too frequently produce overcrowding, rudeness and a general lack of service.

The charges for baggage have caused flight attendants a never-ending nightmare as they struggle to find carry-on space, get people seated and meet their flight schedules. It seems amazing that anybody would want to take on the daunting challenge.

In fact, many who might have don’t. Just by observation, it is evident that the average age of a “stewardess” or “steward” (if they will forgive the use of an archaic term) has climbed. Some of that can be attributed to staff cuts brought on by economic problems. Junior attendants usually are the first to go, even though they cost the airlines less.

Despite all this, there can be no rational explanation for deciding to keep people in their seats locked up in an increasingly stinking jet for hour upon hour to wait out the weather rather than cancel the flight and bus the passengers 85 miles to their destination.

Among all the other things the Obama administration has on its platter, including health care and the war in Afghanistan, this probably seems hardly important. But it certainly was to the passengers on Flight 2816, and it easily could be for others facing increased vagaries of air travel where the cattle car atmosphere can really ruin one’s day and, for that matter, night.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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