Sun Country sets time limit for holding fliers on board

  • Article by: HERÓN MÁRQUEZ ESTRADA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 24, 2009 - 8:16 AM

As Sun Country Airlines announced its new policy, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and other lawmakers pushed for legal change.

Days after 154 of its passengers were stuck on a plane in New York for about six hours, Sun Country Airlines said Sunday that it is changing its policy on extended delays and establishing a deadline for when people and planes will be returned to the terminal. Sun Country CEO Stan Gadek said he believes his company is the first to establish such a deadline -- for this airline, a maximum of four hours.

"To the best of my knowledge, I think we are" the first to set such a deadline, Gadek said Sunday. "I don't know if other airlines will follow ... but I think it's high time that airlines stand up and commit. It's a common-sense thing. The flight delay on Friday was unacceptable. We do not want a repeat of what happened on Friday."

Gadek also said that four hours is a maximum, and that the airline could return passengers to the gate sooner than that if it appears that the delay -- such as the one that occurred at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on Friday -- will last longer than four hours.

"It will be done case by case," said Gadek, who also said he supports passengers' rights legislation now before Congress.

Gadek's announcement drew the immediate support of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who has been pushing airlines to establish a three-hour deadline for delays on airport ramps.

"I would rather have three hours instead of four, but I appreciate that he is taking responsibility for what happened on the flight Friday," Klobuchar said Sunday night.

Gadek said he pushed for the four-hour limit because there are so many three-hour delays at JFK and New York airports that to go under that could mean even longer flight times because of the constant boarding and unboarding.

Lawmakers have said that 52 percent of extreme U.S. delays are flights coming in and out of New York City-area airports.

Klobuchar said that as far as she knows, Sun Country is the first airline to establish a firm deadline for waits.

Airlines have been resisting such a move for years because they believe it could lead to more canceled flights and even longer delays as passengers are taken off and then re-boarded.

"I hope that this starts the discussion going," Klobuchar said. "I still think we need a national standard."

The Sun Country announcement comes as national support is heating up demanding that airlines compensate passengers for extended delays, or at the very least that they establish a deadline for when to return planes to a terminal.

Federal records indicate that in the first six months of this year, 613 flights were delayed for three hours or more. In June alone, that number was 278, according to the New York Times.

"That is unacceptable," said Klobuchar, who is among those pushing hardest for the passenger bill of rights. "It seems to be getting worse."

In recent weeks, such extended delays have received a great deal of attention, putting pressure on airlines and lawmakers to do something. Earlier this month, a Continental Express flight sat at the Rochester (Minn.) Airport for six hours, just 50 yards from the terminal.

Then, on Friday, 154 passengers on Sun Country's morning flight to the Twin Cities got stuck for about six hours. Once they got off, the passengers complained not only about the delay, but also that they had had to buy their food and water from the airline, and that, even so, provisions quickly ran out.

Gadek, who on Sunday continued to apologize for the problem, said that those passengers would be reimbursed for their ticket prices and that the food policy will be changed. Although food and drinks will still be sold on flights, he said, if a flight is delayed more than an hour, such items will be free to its passengers.

He said food and water was still being sold because the airline and pilot kept being told that departure was imminent.

"Pretty soon we went from a two-hour delay to a four-hour delay to a near-six-hour delay," Gadek said. "We didn't expect a six-hour delay. We think we know what 'Minnesota nice' is, but on Friday we certainly didn't demonstrate that."

Heron Marquez Estrada • 612-673-4280

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