Be careful what you wish for.
No one wants to be stuck on an unmoving aircraft, staring through that little oval window at the same slice of tarmac, a fasten seat belt sign glaring down on you for hours on end. But is it worse than not flying at all, having to change your plans and camp out on the cold terminal floor?
Passengers flying in the United States witll soon have plenty of time to mull this question over. As of April 29, new federal rules enacting steep fines on airlines that leave passengers stranded on the runway for over 3 hours without the opportunity to disembark will go into effect. A victory for passenger-rights advocates, airlines that break the new rule will face up to $27,500 per person fines. But in response—and many claim retaliation—to the new rule, airlines are threatening to cancel more flights, potentially causing days of delay instead of hours.
In preparation for the new rule, aggressive flight cancelation has already begun to occur. During last month’s winter storms, airlines canceled over 34,000 flights, more than four times the number of flights in February 2009. Bad weather accounts for most of the lengthy delays on flights, and instead of attempting to fly and risking fines, airlines have simply slashed the flights altogether. This means that passengers who potentially could have flown wound up stranded for days on end.
Passenger-rights advocates and the Department of Transportation claim airlines don’t need to resort to measures as drastic as flight cancelation. The new rule doesn’t enact fines simply due to delay, but rather specifies that airlines must offer passengers the opportunity to disembark a delayed plane and return to the terminal if they wish. Allowing passengers to leave an aircraft creates significant disruption, but is not impossible or unsafe. American airports are already working to create more options for flyers, including more buses and portable stairs, as are common in Europe, as well as creating gates designated for quickly unloading passengers.
Either way, the new rule will change air travel in the United States—how significantly remains to be seen. But as airlines, airports and rights advocates duke it out, flyers will might want to check out Sleeping in Airports, a comprehensive guide to crashing out overnight. And as they search for benches without armrests, they’ll have plenty of time to debate old adages: is it really better to be late than never?