The Travel Detective

Citizen Journalism and Flight Delays

Locations in this article:  Detroit, MI

Kid_PhotographerHow times have changed. When Northwest stranded thousands of passengers in December 1999 in Detroit, it took a few days for that story to get out.

Last February 14, when the big JetBlue meltdown happened at JFK, with massive delays and strandings, the story got out … in a few minutes.

Thanks to Blackberries, cell phones and video cameras, passengers could instantaneously document their ordeal and let the world know what was going on. And dozens of passengers — and their relatives — were emailing me their stories, and their photos and videos, as it happened.

Welcome to the world of citizen journalism.

And it happened again about a week ago, on a Delta flight (operated by ComAir) at JFK. Delayed on the taxiways for hours because of bad weather, the plane, already encumbered by a non-operating air conditioning system and sick passengers, sat…and sat.

Then one passenger grabbed his video camera to document what was going on. The pilot said — on camera — there was nothing he could do. He said it was up to the company to give him permission to return to the gate. When the passenger wanted to continue the interview, the pilot said that if he didn’t turn off his camera, he would have to call the police. As Joe Sharkey reported in The New York Times, the passenger responded that he supported that idea, because if the police came, it would heighten their chances of getting off the plane to nowhere.

And when the police did arrive, with Port Authority cops and the TSA alongside, apparently they tried to figure out if there was a way to arrest the passenger. But he had not been abusive. He was allowed to be out of his seat at that time. He had never entered the cockpit. And he had not been verbally abusive or physically threatening. He simply had a video camera and he was asking fair and legitimate questions.

In the end, the passengers did make it off that overheated, delayed flight.

Let’s hear it for citizen journalism. Despite numerous bills before Congress promoting different versions of a passenger bill of rights, the odds of any of that legislation emerging from Congressional committees aren’t great. And local authorities can’t do much — due to the restrictions provided by federal deregulation.

So what’s the solution? With hope, the U.S. Department of Transportation can issue its own rules outlining what airlines must do (as the Department did with denied boarding regulations).

Another hope is that individual airports institute common sense departure and arrival rules. For example, every airline wants to be competitive on schedule. But what about being competitive on intelligent scheduling? Each airport should do the basic math — if 34 airlines have scheduled an 8 a.m. flight departure, but the airport only has one operational runway, any second grader can figure out that if you’re more than the 15th departure in line, you have no chance of leaving anywhere near 8 a.m.

Airports should put a cap on the number of departures at any one time slot, and if that means holding a departure slot lottery, then so be it.

As for passengers — unless and until hard-hitting passenger rights legislation becomes reality — let me make the following suggestion: Any time you are delayed on a taxiway for more than two hours, weather related or not, you have my permission to bring along a video camera to visually support the story you want me to see. Even more important, why not simply declare you’re sick? The plane then has to go back to the gate. And when asked by medical personnel what is ailing you, let them know you are “sick” of being stuck on the taxiway! I’m only half-joking.

I believe it’s a real medical malady, and I will be willing to testify at your trial…although I doubt any judge would be willing to hear the case, since airlines have stranded the jurists as well.

For more on airport delays, check out “Airlines ‘On Time'”.