Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Back to Life in Senate

[Photo: Kate Hanni, founder of passengers rights movement]

The long-languishing Airline Passengers Bill of Rights, legislation that would require airlines to adhere to certain customer-service procedures when planes full of people sit on tarmacs during extended delays, is back.

U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) reintroduced the legislation today. It had died during the last Congress. Basically, the bill requires airlines to ensure that travelers are not unnecessarily trapped on airplanes for excessive periods of time, or deprived of food, water, or adequate restrooms.

The airlines fiercely fought the legislation last year and will do so again now, in a new legislative environment that may be more supportive of the initiative than was the case in the last Congress.

The legislation is the brainchild of Kate Hanni, a California woman who was stranded with her husband and son for almost 10 hours on a parked plane in Texas in late 2006, along with thousands of other passengers on flights affected by bad weather. As the airline system strained in 2007 and 2008, literally thousands of other planes sat parked for up to 12 hours, with conditions deteriorating, during bad weather or amid other problems at airports throughout the country.

Hanni has spent the last two years organizing a grassroots coalition -- and pushing the national television and print publicity buttons -- to press for the legislation. She's also tirelessly worked the halls of Congress and various state legislatures.

I have known Kate since she started her drive, and she's a genuine political phenomenon, though a controversial one.

Her group's Web site is at www.flyersrights.org

Boxer and Snowe issued a joint statement announcing reintroduction of the legislation.

Passengers have been stranded for long periods "without access to food, safe drinking water or functioning bathrooms," said Boxer. "People deserve to be safe and comfortable, and know that airlines and the Department of Transportation are going to protect and accommodate them in the event of excessive delays."

Snowe said, "Whether it is the record length of delays, lack of access to adequate food and water or the overbooking of flights, the U.S. airline industry has time and time again failed to protect the basic rights of the flying public. "Given the amount of money Americans are paying for airline fares and the unconscionable litany of fees and surcharges being tacked on to the price of a ticket, Congress has an obligation to step in and set a standard for airline consumer protections in this country. This legislation is a common-sense solution that will ensure the safety of travelers and guarantee their basic needs."

The legislation would require:

---Airlines to offer passengers the option of safely deplaning once they have sat on the ground for three hours after the plane door has closed. This option would be provided every three hours the plane continues to sit on the ground.

---Airlines to provide passengers with food, potable water, comfortable cabin temperature and ventilation and adequate restrooms while a plane is delayed on the ground.

---That the Department of Transportation create a consumer complaint hotline so that passengers can report delays.

---Airports and airlines to develop contingency plans for delayed flights to be reviewed and approved by the transportation department.

The bill also allows the transportation department to fine air carriers and airports that do not submit or fail to comply with contingency plans.

The bill provides two exceptions to the three-hour option -- "to ensure passenger safety and airport efficiency," the statement says.

Pilots may decide to not allow passengers to deplane if they believe safety or security would be at risk due to weather or other emergencies. Additionally, pilots may delay deplaning up to a half hour beyond the three hour period if they reasonably believe the flight will depart within 30 minutes.

Boxer and Snowe first introduced the bill in the Senate in 2007.

Provisions of their Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights were included in the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization bill, which was passed by the Commerce Committee but blocked on the Senate floor.

The case for federal action was strengthened when the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down a New York State law protecting passengers’ rights.

The New York law provided for health and safety measures, but did not address what I regard as the third rail of Hanni's passengers-rights initiative, which is the mandate that passengers must be allowed to leave a plane stuck on the tarmac after three hours.

In overturning the New York law shortly after it went into effect last year, the federal court cited the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which greatly restricts the ability of government to legislate any aspect of airline operations.

The bill has strong industry opposition. The best argument the industry can muster, to my mind, is that requiring a pilot to return a plane to the gate after x-number of hours could have unintended consequences. That it, it might well introduce a new level of chaos into airline operating schedules, since that flight will have lost its place for take-off and may well end up canceled rather than badly delayed.

On the other hand, the airline industry's wingeing and caterwauling about other aspects of the bill -- requiring working toilets and adequate food and drink on board stranded planes -- is an example of tone-deafness at its worst, in my opinion. If the airlines can't find a way to treat stranded passengers humanely, and so far most of them have not, then the government damned well needs to step in. Period.

The aviation forecaster Michael Boyd, who has derided Hanni and her movement, seems resigned to the likelihood of some form of passengers rights law taking effect this year.

In his weekly essay yesterday at the web site of his company, Boyd Group International, Boyd excoriates the airlines for not raising hell about the basic cause of delays: An antiquated air-traffic control system and what he regards as a hopelessly inept Federal Aviation Administration, which he says has wasted billions trying to develop a new, long-delayed, obsolete-before-it-even-arrives air-traffic system called NextGen, which he and other critics have derided as "yesterday-Gen."


1 comment:

dcast said...

The airlines have made great strides in improving customer service and operational reliability since the unique winter delays of 2006. Today, the DOT announced a second month where lengthy tarmac delays have been reduced. DOT has proposed new passenger protection regulations. Airlines, airports and DOT developed model contingency plans. So much of what Congress is proposing already is being done. On the other hand, a mandatory three-hour deplaning rule would have many unintended consequences that would harm – not benefit -- the traveling public.

David Castelveter
Vice President Communications
Air Transport Association