WASHINGTON – A government task force has come up with its solution for lengthy airline delays that often keep passengers stranded on the tarmac for hours:
It decided to let the airlines solve the problem for themselves.
The tarmac task force, as it is informally known, adopted a report on Wednesday that includes guidelines for crafting contingency plans for dealing with lengthy tarmac delays.
But, after meeting for nearly a year and running up a taxpayer tab of $135,000, it did not recommend any new laws or regulations. It decided that the airlines and airports could decide for themselves whether to follow or ignore its guidelines.
The task force wasn't even able to agree on what constitutes a "lengthy delay" — one hour, two hours or 10 hours.
JetBlue clocked the longest airline delay in 2007 at seven hours and five minutes. This year, Delta is in the lead with a flight delay of seven hours and two minutes.
The task force voted 34-1 in favor of the report. The lone dissenting vote was cast by Kate Hanni, a passenger rights advocate and founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights.
"You have to admit that the game is still heavily weighted to business as usual," Hanni told her fellow task force members before voting against adoption of the report.
"This task force report could have contained allowing passengers off of aircraft with a certain amount of time," she told FOX News. "It could have contained essential needs, such as food and water, hygienic toilets, emptying the trash containers, temperature control, but it didn't contain any of those things and those are the things that passengers have been crying out for."
Hanni said the task force report reflects demands by airline members that they have the flexibility to design their own response plans and not be pinned to a time limit for holding passengers on tarmacs.
"We were hoping at a bare minimum to come out of this task force with a definition of what is an extensive on-ground delay," Hanni said. But the airline industry "doesn't want anything that is remotely enforceable," she said.
Task force member Daniel Rutenberg of the International Airline Passengers Association also expressed disappointment at the lack of "time-specific triggers" for allowing passengers to return to gates and appealed to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters to address the issue.
Transportation Department Assistant General Council Sam Podberesky, the task force's chairman, said the department is working separately on a rule that will require airlines and airports to have contingency plans and include a time limit.
Federal rulemaking is a lengthy process, guaranteeing the issue will be among those waiting for the Obama administration.
The report "is a set of best practices, but there's nothing enforceable where a passenger can say, 'I won't be held up for more than three hours or five hours or eight hours, or without a glass of water or a sandwich,'" said Hanni.
Task force member Benjamin DeCosta, the aviation general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, said that he favors time limits but that they need to be tailored to each airline and each airport.
"This problem is so complex that one size doesn't fit all," DeCosta said.
The report issued the following guidelines, which it said should be voluntary:
— Airlines should update passengers delayed on tarmacs every 15 minutes, even if there is nothing new to report.
— A secure room should be provided for passengers from diverted overseas flights so they can avoid having to go through security checks when reboarding an aircraft to their final destination.
— When practical, refreshments and entertainment should be made available to passengers confined aboard aircraft awaiting takeoff.
— Airlines should "make every reasonable effort" to be keep airplane restrooms usable.
The Transportation Department's inspector general last fall recommended setting a limit for how long airlines can force passengers to wait on planes that have been delayed taking off.
The 36-member task force was created in December by Secretary Peters after several incidents in which passengers were stuck for hours before their flight took off or before they were allowed to get off the plane.
Task force members said it quickly became apparent that the group — dominated by airline industry and airport representatives — would be unable to come up with a model plan acceptable to a majority of members.
"The airlines don't want it, and the airports — several of them major airports — believe they already have plans" to deal with passengers stuck aboard aircraft, said task force member Paul Ruden, a senior vice president at the American Society of Travel Agents.
Ruden said his main objection to the report is that it does not ask Peters to require airlines and airports to develop contingency plans.
"I had hoped we would do more," he said, adding that the recommendations might still be of use to smaller airports and airlines.
The Air Transport Association, the trade association for the airline industry, said the task force achieved its objective, and some of its recommendations are already being adopted by the industry.
"The success of the task force clearly demonstrates that not every problem requires a new law or regulation, especially when it comes to operational and customer-service issues," Elizabeth Merida, a spokeswoman for the association, said in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.