Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Appeals Court Overturns N.Y. Passengers' Rights Law

The New York State passengers' bill of rights law was stuck down today by a federal appeals court which found that "requiring airlines to provide food, water, electricity and restrooms to passengers during lengthy ground delays" violates the landmark 1978 Airline Deregulation Act.

The ruling, which is expected to be challenged in the Supreme Court, reversed a decision by a U.S. District Court that upheld the New York law, which took effect Jan. 1.

The New York law was the first state legislation addressing airlines' responsibilities toward passengers stranded on idled airplanes for three hours or more. It basically said that airlines must provide adequate food and water and working toilets to passengers stranded on parked planes, unable to get to a gate. The law provided for penalties of up to $1,000 per passenger for violations.

At least a dozen other state legislatures are considering their own versions of passengers' rights laws. A federal version of a passengers rights law is currently stalled in Congress.

The key argument made by the airline industry, which vehemently opposes the legislation, is that the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act (ADA) specifically prohibits states from interfering in airline "service."

Proponents of passengers' rights laws like the one in New York argued that the ADA prohibitions against state interference in airline "service" do not preclude states from ensuring that airlines provide basic passenger health and comfort provisions, including adequately working toilets, for stranded passengers.

However, today's ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit states that "requiring airlines to provide food, water, electricity and restrooms to passengers during lengthy ground delays does relate to the service of an air carrier and therefore falls within the express terms of the ADA's preemption provision."

The Air Transport Association (ATA), the airline-industry trade group that had filed suit to challenge the New York law, hailed today's appeals court ruling. In a statement, the trade group said:

"The court's decision vindicates the position of ATA and the airlines -- that airline services are regulated by the federal government and that a patchwork of laws by states and localities would be impractical and harmful to consumer interests. This clear and decisive ruling sends a strong message to other states that are considering similar legislation."

A blog (published by a New York law firm) that tracks civil-rights opinions of the Second Circuit appeals court stated that "this case may be on a rocket ship to the Supreme Court" because other federal appeals courts in different cases have had different interpretations of what constitutes airline "service."

That blog (http://secondcircuitcivilrights.blogspot.com) says: "When the Courts of Appeals around the country disagree on the interpretation of a federal statute, the Supreme Court usually intervenes to iron out those differences. This case is a perfect candidate for Supreme Court review."

[Michael N. Gianaris, the New York state assemblyman who drafted the law, told the New York Times "City Room" blog today that the appeals court ruling was predictably pro-corporation. He said:

“One would struggle to find examples as outrageous as those faced by passengers on these planes. Even with the most minimal of requirements, the court has sided with the company.”

To get a feel for how people think about this, check out the comments following the City Room item.]


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