Sunday, January 27, 2008

Airlines Getting Nervous About Passengers' Rights Bills


Reflecting growing concern in the airline industry that the federal government might crack down on continuing customer service abuses, including stranding passengers for long periods of time on tarmacs, the Air Transport Association has filed a lengthy position paper (.pdf linked to above) with the Transportation Department opposing any move to require airlines to have contingency plans for “tarmac delays” and to incorporate those contingency plans into their “contracts of carriage.”

Contracts of carriage are the fine-print agreements you make with an airline every time you buy a ticket, basically allowing the airline to do anything to you except deliberately kill you, and in some cases there’s even a loophole for that.

The Air Transport Association (ATA) is the industry’s leading trade group. It sued unsuccessfully in federal court last month to try to block a passengers’ rights law that took effect in New York State Jan. 1. Legislation for similar laws is pending in other states, and federal passengers’ bills of rights legislation is pending in both houses of Congress.

As it has consistently done, the ATA blames most delays, cancellations and other disruptions on “inadequate system capacity and technology,” meaning a crappy national air traffic system that doesn't have enough capacity to handle disruptions like … weather.

But the ATA has been somewhat coy in this matter, given that proposed technological fixes are years behind schedule and won’t be made for years more to come.

The aviation industry forecaster Michael Boyd hammers the ATA relentlessly on this. Why, he asks, is the airline industry trade group — which has no problem denouncing private jets and/or Kate Hanni as villains — so timid about stating the obvious: That the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration have allowed this nation’s air-traffic system — specifically, the system for managing air space and traffic — to deteriorate so badly.

Boyd, by the way, is especially tough on the Federal Aviation Administration. See his useful primer-screed for the news media on that subject on his Web site

No one that I know argues with the ATA that the inadequate air-traffic system is a root cause of delays. Everyone I know worries that it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better, especially with the large cohort of experienced air traffic controllers hired during the Reagan Administration now reaching retirement age. Those men and woman have held the system together, and it will not be easy to replace them.

The issue the passengers’ rights movement people have with the airlines isn’t air-traffic control -- it is health, safety and a concern about a basic level of customer service. For over a year now, airlines have stranded tens of thousands of passengers on parked planes, while cabin conditions deteriorate, food and water are unavailable, toilets become disgusting if not unusable, people get sick and frantic. This, say the passengers’ rights people, must stop — even if it takes a federal law to make it stop.

The airline industry is terrified that government will step in. In the statement linked to above, for example, see on Page 4 where the ATA argues that requiring an airline by law to return to a gate after a certain period of time (three hours, say) “could force operational changes that would not benefit passengers” and is “an enormous carrier concern.”

Then my jaw dropped at the language in the next paragraph:

“A DOT requirement that carriers set and adhere to an unqualified, hard time-limit to return to the gate has potential to be counterproductive to safety and customer service. For example, recent planning by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for potential pandemics indicates the government may order carriers to keep passengers on airplanes under certain circumstances.” …

Oh. Sweet. Jayzus. … They’re playing the Bubonic Plague card.


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