Star Tribune

Incredibly, it happened again, just two weeks after 47 Continental Airlines passengers endured a hellish overnight stay in a small, cramped and smelly ExpressJet plane grounded at the Rochester airport.

Last Friday, Minneapolis-bound passengers on a Delta Airlines flight sat on the runway in New York City for four hours before returning to the terminal. The same day at the same airport, 154 passengers flying Twin Cities-based Sun Country Airlines were stranded for almost six hours. Like Continental, which apologized profusely for an incident that actually was the fault of a Mesaba Airlines employee in Rochester, Sun Country offered a quick, much-needed mea culpa.

On Sunday, Sun Country CEO Stan Gadek publicly apologized and wisely offered the unfortunate passengers a refund. Gadek then declared that his airline would set a time limit of four hours for holding passengers on board a delayed plane. Four hours still seems like a long time in the legroom-less confines of a plane, but the hard-and-fast deadline, believed to be the first of its kind in the industry, is a welcome step.

Airlines may soon not have a choice in how long they keep stranded passengers on board, a development that has both pluses and minuses. After the high-profile delays of the two Minnesota-bound flights, politicians will find it difficult to ask the hard questions needed about the so-called "Passenger Bill of Rights" legislation expected to come before the Senate in September as part of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act. Among other things, it would set a three-hour limit for holding travelers on a grounded plane, unless the pilot believes it's unsafe to disembark or the plane will leave in the next half hour. The measure's sponsors are Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is an advocate; Sun Country's Gadek has also voiced support for passenger rights legislation.

Others in the airline industry and travel experts such as Terry Trippler raise fair concerns that the three-hour limit may create more problems than it solves. What happens to passengers who choose to deplane? Do they get a refund? Particularly during the crowded holidays, do these passengers take precedence over others on later flights? What happens to their bags? Will sending buses out to deplane passengers, and then having these vehicles wait while passengers walk down the plane stairs with their carry-ons, snarl runway operations even further?

These are not new arguments. The airline industry has raised them for more than a decade each time another horrific delay renews calls for passenger protections. At the same time, airlines have promised to take care of this issue internally. And yet, the delays remain an ongoing problem, albeit a relatively rare one given the vast number of flights. Still, just two weeks passed between the Rochester nightmare and the Sun Country and Delta delays. If there's no mandated time limit, then what's the solution to prevent future strandings? Said Trippler on Monday, "I don't know.''

It's unfortunate that a federal law is needed to dictate common sense -- getting passengers off planes in a reasonable timeframe. But the time has come to outline basic protections for passengers. The public has zero patience left for these delays. The airline and travel industry should acknowledge this reality and work with policymakers to set workable time limits and spell out provisions for travelers who choose to deplane.