The last half of July in the Sonoran Desert is no time to allow people to be in a position to be sickened by our intense summer heat.
But even under a 2011 U.S. Department of Transportation rule known as the “Passenger Bill of Rights,” seen as airlines can leave people sitting in a hot aircraft on a desert tarmac for up to four hours. And only after two hours are they required to provide “adequate food and water … as well as working lavatories and any necessary medical treatment,” according to an April 2011 USDOT statement outlining the provisions of the rule.
KPNX-TV (Channel 12) reported that Allegiant Airlines staff members provided water much sooner than two hours to more than 150 passengers left in one of its airliners at the gate at Phoenix Mesa Gateway International Airport last Wednesday. Still, the total time in the plane with no air conditioning was two and a half hours, according to a report by Tribune partner ABC15.
ABC15 quoted Allegiant officials as saying the air conditioning was not working due to a maintenance issue and that summer heat exacerbates such situations.
To be sure, that’s true. Ask any auto mechanic whose garage is besieged each June by owners of cars whose radiators and hoses spring leaks and whose batteries fail to hold a charge. Even well-maintained cars (and airplanes) can develop maintenance problems in Arizona summers; if you don’t believe me, read your car’s owner’s manual’s description of “severe service” — hot, dusty conditions with lots of stop and go driving on hot pavement — and you’ve got a perfect description of where we live.
In the case of airlines operating in the Sonoran Desert, if it is impractical to take everyone off the plane until it’s repaired, that means portable air conditioning units brought into the front and rear. The units would have flexible ducts to take hot air out of the plane while blowing refrigerated air in. Yes, you’d have to keep the doors partially open to lead the ductwork out, but it beats nothing. Or evaporative coolers, which work better with doors open, could be brought in, although they don’t function as well if the humidity is up.
Of all the little annoying fees we pay the airlines, I’m sure everyone would pay another few cents to buy these units and keep them ready in case of emergency.
Of course, the best solution is that after 30 minutes without air conditioning restored is to take people off the plane and into a secure and climate-controlled holding area.
Yes, I’m aware of the TSA inspections. But when airports have to deal with occasional possible security breaches — like, when some jerk breezes past the screening area because he’s late and, you know, a very important person in his own mind — passengers are often rescreened.
It is an imposition, but at least the rescreening is done in the air conditioned terminal and nobody’s in a position to suffer from heat exhaustion or worse. Hand out paperwork or a sticker to wear on clothing to each passenger verifying he or she was screened or rescreened.
I was stuck on a plane on the tarmac in Phoenix for a couple of hours once; it was summer but luckily the air conditioning worked. Even with cooler conditions, it’s not knowing how long the wait will be that drives passengers batty. You sit there without any idea of whether the mechanical issue is something that just needs a guy with a screwdriver or major mechanical surgery that involves flying in experts from Europe.
And so, to the airlines: Certain destinations have severe weather at certain times of year. The Upper Midwest in winter. The Southwest deserts in summer. Do more to recognize that humans inside your planes without controlled climates don’t do well in either for very long.
To passengers: The feds were only willing to go so far with the “Passenger Bill of Rights.” It’s up to passengers to speak up to the airlines as customers and demand they support mitigating measures that go beyond handing out water and food to overheated people packed in hot, full planes that offer less space per person than before.
Read Tribune contributing columnist Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Reach him at email@example.com.