“I have never seen such chaos on an airplane”

britishAnother day, another tarmac delay.

Steve Steinberg says he was trapped 5 1/2 hours on British Airways flight 269 from Los Angeles to London. It all happened on Aug. 17, a little over a week after a Continental/ExpressJet incident in which passengers were forced to spend the night on a plane.

Despite repeated requests to be let off the plane, and even though he cited a European Union laws he believes would have freed the travelers sooner, he alleges the airline refused to move.

Due to a variety of problems the plane sat either at the gate or on the tarmac for approx 5 1/2 hrs — no food served, no air conditioning in coach.

I have traveled all over the world and on many different planes and carriers. I have never seen such chaos on an airplane — passengers (including children) without food for many many hours, passengers refusing to sit down, passengers crying, demanding to be let off the airplane, announcements from the staff on the overhead speakers complaining about the passengers, people milling about all over the airplane, etc.

Not good at all.

Even though in the European Union there are passenger rights that airlines are supposed to follow — I asked to get off the airplane and was simply refused.

Steinberg wrote to British Airways about his displeasure with the 5 1/2 hour delay. Its response?

Dear Mr Steinberg

Thank you for contacting us about your claim for EU compensation.

Your claim for compensation has been refused because BA0269 on 18 August 2009 was not cancelled.

Under EU legislation, British Airways is not liable for a compensation payment when a flight is delayed. For more detailed information, please visit ba.com

· click on the section marked Legal

· then select Notification of rights to compensation for cancelled flights

Thank you for following this up with us and I hope you will fly with us again soon.

Best regards

Robert McGivern
British Airways Customer Relations

Lovely form letter.

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Under EU Rule 261/2004, British Airways should have at the very least taken care of its passengers — if not turned back to the gate. EU laws apply to any flying to or from an EU member state.

(17) Passengers whose flights are delayed for a specified time should be adequately cared for and should be able to cancel their flights with reimbursement of their tickets or to continue them under satisfactory conditions.

I asked the airline about BA 269. Here’s what it told me:

It seems there was a technical fault with an engine thrust reverser that took several hours to repair, and then as the aircraft was taxiing out, some passengers became overly nervous and caused the captain to decide to return to the gate and off-load the passengers.

Safety is obviously paramount and we won’t put a plane in the air if there’s a technical fault or that there are unruly passengers that could cause disruption or problems to a safe operation.

I don’t know why the crew refused to give out snacks or water/juice, and/or a proper explanation. All the passengers should have been given apology letters. But we are investigating.

That’s not how Steinberg remembers it.

We had already gone back to the gate [regarding the] engines. Then I recall we were at the gate but couldn’t leave because some passengers were unruly and frankly refused to sit down so they were let off — and were publicly derided over the PA system by the crew, which my wife and I felt was inappropriate behavior by BA staff).

Then they had to unload their baggage and then they added more fuel and then we finally took off.

I suspect they didn’t allow me or other passengers who “asked nicely” to disembark, as then they would have had to get my baggage and that would have caused further delays. And they really didn’t seem to know the EU policies on flight delays and didn’t realize that they were supposed to let me off and refund the ticket.

British Airways has promised more details on this flight delay. I’ll post them when they’re available.

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(Photo: griffs0000/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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