Back then, indignant congressmen proposed legislation to regulate these situations.
Congress never enacted the proposed laws. The effort fizzled after major airlines, led by their industry group, the Air Transport Assn., based in Washington, D.C., adopted voluntary plans vowing to make "every reasonable effort" to provide services to trapped fliers.
Bob Olson of Corona faced this reality firsthand this summer. Twice in a month's time, he said, he endured what he said were sweltering waits on the ground in jets.
On his June 27 flight to Minneapolis with his wife, Susan, and daughters Annika, 10, and Elena, 8, he said, the American Airlines jet sat for an hour on the ground at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport awaiting engine and air-conditioning repairs, then waited again to take off. Temperatures rose inside the cabin, but no water was offered, he said. Outside, the high at O'Hare that day was 95 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
"I kept looking at my daughters and thinking, 'Are they going to last?' " said Olson, who works in healthcare management. "You feel so powerless."
Finally the jet took off.
Tim Wagner, a spokesman for American Airlines, acknowledged the delay in departure. But, he said in an e-mail, the airline had no documentation of passenger complaints about the delay or the discomfort.
He also said that passengers should ask flight crews for assistance, which is "often the most expedient way to alert them to an issue."
"Otherwise," he said, "they simply may not know that a person is thirsty or uncomfortable."
Traveling alone the next month, Olson said, he encountered a similar problem on America West, which he boarded the evening of July 20 to fly from Phoenix to Ontario, Calif.
For nearly two hours, by his account, the plane remained on the ground while the crew tried to fix the air conditioning. In a city where the high that day, according to the Weather Service, was 109 degrees, temperatures in the cabin reached at least 85 degrees, Olson figured.
Consulting the records
CARLO BERTOLINI, a spokesman for US Airways, which merged last month with America West, said he was surprised by Olson's complaint because, "If we know we have to do a repair, we almost always go back to the gate."
Bertolini said the airline's records on Olson's flight made no mention of air-conditioning repairs; instead it referred to a delay due to a problem with offloading cargo.
The records, he added, showed that the jet, which had a scheduled departure of 7:15 p.m., left the gate at 7:58 p.m. and took off at 8:19 p.m.
"Do we have any rights once the plane pulls back?" Olson asked.
Not really. At least, that's what I concluded after posing Olson's question to federal regulators; Terry Trippler, an airline expert with http://www.cheapseats.com , an online travel site; and J. Douglas Peters, an attorney with Charfoos & Christensen, a Detroit-based law firm that sued Northwest on behalf of the passengers trapped in 1999.