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EDITORIAL: Finally, some rights for air passengers

Air travelers have long insisted there ought to be a law against holding them interminably in planes delayed on the ground. Well, now there's a rule, which isn't exactly a law, but it should be just as good.

President Barack Obama delivered that holiday gift to weary travelers Monday, on the heels of a long weekend of snow-related delays. Beginning in 120 days, airlines will have to get passengers into the air within three hours or let them off the plane. If a delay lasts beyond two hours, carriers must provide water, snacks and a working lavatory. That doesn't seem like much to ask, but it's been a long time coming.

Incident after incident of travelers held hostage fueled repeated calls for a passengers' bill of rights. But each time air carriers insisted they would solve the problem voluntarily, and Congress backed off to let them try. It didn't work. Through Oct. 31 of this year, there were 864 flights delayed more than three hours, according to federal transportation officials.

The new passenger-liberating rules will apply only to U.S. airlines and to domestic flights, and exceptions will be allowed for safety and security reasons. But violators can be slammed with fines up to $27,500 per passenger per violation.

Air carriers say the rules will result in more cancellations and possibly fewer scheduled flights. Maybe. But that's an acceptable trade-off to avoid powerless hours trapped, hungry and thirsty, aboard a cramped plane going nowhere. hN