Commentary: Fines for airlines over tarmac delays are a win for consumers

From the better late than never file: The federal government last week imposed its first penalties ever against the airline industry for a runway delay incident. Will wonders never cease?

These nightmarish episodes, in which passengers are left stranded in an aircraft for hours on end without being allowed to leave, have been going on for years. Every new instance prompts an outcry from the public but usually produces little more than a stern tsk-tsk from airline regulators.

The industry has promised to clean up its act, but absent a penalty there has been little incentive to improve performance. This time, however, the Transportation Department fined three airlines $175,000 for leaving 47 passengers stranded in a regional jet overnight in Rochester, Minn., last August.

The agency said Continental Airlines and a regional affiliate had deceived passengers by failing to live up to a promise on the airline Website to let passengers exit the plane within three hours when facing an extended delay. Continental and its affiliate had the nerve to claim that such promises aren't enforceable, but they each agreed to pay $50,000 anyway.

A third airline acting as ground handler for the stranded flight, Mesaba, agreed to pay a fine of $75,000 for its role in the incident. The hapless passengers were kept on the plane from 12:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. despite pleas to be allowed to leave.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the fines "a signal to the rest of the airline industry that we expect airlines to respect the rights of air travelers." Those are encouraging words for passengers, especially at the start of the holiday travel season, but there's a better way to put an end to this outrageous behavior by airlines: enacting a national set of standards to keep this from happening again.

To read the complete editorial, visit The Miami Herald.