Thursday, January 31, 2008

Michigan Passengers' Rights Bill

There are now passengers' rights bills pending at various stages in the legislative process in more than a dozen states, and one that became law in New York on Jan. 1.

These all are in response to airlines' strandings of passengers on tarmacs for long periods of time -- a phenomenon that accelerated just over a year ago as shrunken domestic capacity and continuing high demand collided in a system the airlines have designed to have very little slack to accommodate even routine weather disruptions.

Here's a link to a copy one of the most recent state bills, now in the Michigan Senate transportation committee. This one is different from the others because, at least as currently written, it seeks to set strict health and safety standards but allows the airlines to hold passengers for up to eight hours on parked planes. Most of the others set the limit at three hours before a plane must return to a gate to let passengers off.

(The Michigan law, as drafted, also contains some sloppy language that would get a paper bounced off a student's head in any decent law school. For example, it states that a carrier needs to provide, "as needed," fresh air and lights, waste removal and adequate food and water after three hours on a plane stuck on a tarmac. And it states that a passenger who is allowed off a plane after eight hours shall be accommodated on "the next similar route. [My italics]. Hell, a South Jersey real estate lawyer could poke a hole in that language, let alone a high-powered airline lawyer.)

Anyway, the New York law doesn't address the time period at all -- deliberately, its sponsors said, to avoid conflicting with federal law that deregulated airline flight operations in 1978. Rather, the New York law (like all of the other proposed state laws) addresses health and safety issues that clearly are within a state's authority, and holds the airlines responsible for violations within New York state, with potential fines of $1,000 per passenger.

The airline industry is furiously lobbying against these bills, especially in Congress. But the states are where the momentum is.

Behind these bills (and pending federal legislation) is, as I have said previously, the Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights (


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