Thursday, December 20, 2007

Federal Court Tosses Out Airlines' Bid to Block N.Y. Passenger Rights Law

A federal judge in Albany, N.Y., this afternoon threw out a move by the airline industry to block enforcement of the New York State Passengers Rights' law, which will take effect Jan. 1.

Besides denying the injunction, the federal court went further, affirming New York state's right to enact and enforce such a law, and denying the airlines bid for a summary judgment based on the airlines' contention that the state law is an unconstitutional violation of the provisions of the 1978 federal Airline Deregulation Act. (ADA)

The New York passengers' rights law "is limited and discrete in scope: the provision of lavatories, fresh air, food and water for passengers confined for over three hours on an airplane," U.S. District Judge Lawrence E. Kahn ruled. Consequently, the state law "is not preempted by the ADA," his decision said.

The passenger rights' law is fiercely opposed by airlines who fear that similar legislation will spread to other states and perhaps spur passage of a more-sweeping federal passengers' rights bill. The law requires airlines who keep passengers on board planes stranded for three hours or more on tarmacs in New York state to provide adequate food, water, ventilation and sanitary conditions. It sets a penalty of up to $1,000 per passenger for failure to do so.

California, New Jersey and several other states are considering passage of similar laws. And passengers' rights bills are pending in both houses of Congress. The federal bills would add a measure even more onerous to the airlines, requiring airlines to allow passengers to return to a gate and debark after three hours of being confined to the cabin of a parked plane.

"What you're going to see is other states following suit, and hopefully the Congress stepping in more aggressively, now that we know the states are moving on this," Michael Gianaris, a New York state assembleman who co-sponsored the bill, told me this afternoon.

The airlines, Mr. Gianaris said, "brought this on themselves. They promised action voluntarily. They didn't do that. It's an ongoing problem. My preference is not to legislate, but clearly in this case it was absolutely necessary."

In dismissing the airlines' lawsuit, Judge Lawrence Kahn said that the airlines had no ground in arguing that state regulation of in-cabin services, such as providing water and working toilets, was an unconstitutional violation of the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, which specifies that states could not set their own rules over airline flight operations.

"The field of health and safety is one of the most established areas of state police-power," the judge wrote, adding that "the Passenger Bill of Rights is an exercise in state protection of the public health. Fresh air, water, sanitation and food are necessities in the extreme situation in which this act applies."

The Air Transport Association, the airline trade group that filed the lawsuit, issued a statement that seemed to minimize the U.S. District Court, which it referred to twice, in its text and in the headline, as a "New York lower court." The U.S. District Court is not a New York court, but a federal court.

ATA said it was issuing its statement, "in response to the New York lower court's decision regarding ATA's challenge to the legality of the state's airline passenger rights legislation."

The statement said, "ATA believes that the court has misinterpreted the law. We are considering our options, including filing an appeal. ATA's sole purpose in filing this lawsuit was to preserve the principle that commercial aviation is best regulated by one source -- the federal government -- and not 50 individual states."


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