Last week when Peoria's own Ray LaHood appeared on "The Daily Show," comedian Jon Stewart got a laugh describing the transportation secretary's job as the "least glamorous Cabinet position" in Washington. If only he'd known then the announcement the secretary had up his sleeve.

Last week when Peoria's own Ray LaHood appeared on "The Daily Show," comedian Jon Stewart got a laugh describing the transportation secretary's job as the "least glamorous Cabinet position" in Washington. If only he'd known then the announcement the secretary had up his sleeve.


Just in time for the holiday travel rush, LaHood rolled out on Monday new rules aimed at halting the most egregious instances of disregard airlines show their passengers. We've all heard the occasional horror stories of planes trapped on the tarmac by flight delays, officially "departed" from their gates but held up by weather or other causes for hour upon hour upon hour. This past August, 47 people on a small-city, regional jet - the size of the ones flying out of Peoria - were stuck overnight for six hours on a Minnesota runway.


Over the last couple of years an average of 1,500 domestic flights a year - that's around 114,000 passengers - have been held up for stretches of three hours or more, with folks missing connections as they are confined with seat belts fastened and tray tables up, stuffed in poorly ventilated tubes waiting to take off.


But no more. LaHood's rule would require that after three hours elapse - absent imminent take-off or a clear security risk - airlines will have to let passengers off the plane or face fines. At $27,500 per passenger, these aren't slap-on-the-wrist sanctions, but a legitimate disincentive. Even partially full jets waiting to fly back to Peoria could could rack up a million bucks in penalties. Perhaps Uncle Sam could share some of that with the passengers who endure the hardship by reimbursing their fares.


Passengers also win the right - shocking it had to be granted by fiat - to be treated like human beings rather than cattle during lengthy on-plane delays. Carriers will have to keep airplane bathrooms functioning, and within the first two hours of delay will have to provide both food and water for passengers. "This is the beginning," LaHood told the Associated Press. "We think we owe it to passengers to really look out for them."


As these problems have cropped up off and on and the hassles of flying in general have increased over the years - not all of them caused by the airlines themselves - there has been a persistent drumbeat for Congress to pass an "airline passengers' bill of rights." The Bush administration convened a task force of industry representatives and asked them to develop potential rules for self-regulation, which of course didn't lead to much. Last summer the U.S. House ordered a study of the problem and set up a passenger protection advisory committee. The Senate has rules pending that aren't anywhere close to being voted on. Prior attempts have been thwarted by airline lobbyists.


As a result DOT utilized the regulatory powers at its disposal to cut to the chase, to write the rules and impose them. They take effect in 120 days. Expect there to be a fair amount of industry grumbling in the meantime. Indeed, the airlines already have warned that this will lead to more cancellations and inconvenience, though we don't expect them to get much sympathy.


From where we sit, three hours is plenty reasonable, as many a passenger probably would have opted for less. There are some common-sense escape clauses for situations where returning to the terminal is ill-advised. Look at it this way: Uncle Sam is just helping the airlines avoid more passenger lawsuits. By the airlines' own admission, this doesn't happen all that often as a percentage of total flights, so why are they sweating something so insignificant?


Anyone effectively confined against their will for hours on end, unable to make alternative travel arrangements as they're trying to get back home for the holidays, may very well thank Uncle Sam - and Uncle Ray - for getting involved here. We trust this move will be quite popular.


Peoria Journal Star