Passenger rights gain support

Stronger legal protections for passengers on U.S. airlines are gaining momentum because of this year's record flight delays and service meltdowns.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed new rules addressing problem areas, including tarmac delays and bumping of passengers on overbooked flights. In Congress, both the House and the Senate have consumer-protection legislation pending to cover many of the same areas.

"If the Department of Transportation doesn't act, Congress will, and perhaps go even further," U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said Monday.

Some of the proposals:

*A House proposal, part of a larger bill to modernize the air-traffic control system, would force airlines to submit detailed emergency plans for taking care of passengers during tarmac delays that continue for several hours. The plans, requiring provisions for adequate water, food, restroom facilities and ventilation, would be subject to DOT approval. The government could fine airlines that don't adhere to plans.

*The DOT, under existing legal authority, has proposed doubling the compensation to a passenger who gets involuntarily bumped from a flight that's overbooked. The traveler would get $400 to $800, depending on how quickly he or she is given a seat on a later flight. Flights on planes seating 30 to 60 passengers, now exempt from bumping rules, would be covered.

*The DOT is also proposing to declare it an unfair and deceptive business practice for airlines to sell and operate flights that almost never arrive on time. A "chronically late flight" would be one that arrives more than 15 minutes late more than 70% of the time. Airlines could be fined for the practice.

In May, the DOT warned 20 airlines to quit operating chronically late flights or face fines later this year. To date, no fines have been levied against airlines still operating those flights.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said the proposed rules "will allow us to step up oversight of chronically delayed flights and enhance protections for consumers."

But consumer advocates say the DOT's proposals fall short of what's needed. They note that a proposed rule requiring a contingency plan for tarmac delays falls well short of the House bill's proposal. The DOT would not require those plans to be approved by the government, and violations would not result in fines for airlines.

Advocate Paul Hudson, head of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, says the DOT has "defaulted on its responsibility to regulate the industry." Letting airlines enforce their own rules during extraordinary delays "is letting the fox run the chicken coop."

Consumer activist Kate Hanni, who spent eight hours trapped on an American Airlines flight last December, agrees. The DOT's proposal on tarmac delays "would take us backwards," she says.

Airline passenger complaints to the DOT this year are running 70% ahead of last year. The department logged 8,612 passenger complaints about U.S. airline service through September, the latest month for which data are available. In July and August, the busiest summer travel months, complaints doubled year-over-year.

The last 12 months have also seen repeated and well-publicized examples of airline service gaffes, including passenger strandings with planeloads of people trapped in planes for hours, unable to take off or deplane because of bad weather, congestion or both.

Secretary Peters is exploring whether the department should hire more enforcement staff.

U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairman of a House subcommittee that has held hearings on service this year, said he plans to continue pressuring DOT to step up consumer protection. "We want to fix the system," he said.

Even the airlines' largest trade organization, the Air Transport Association, says members are resigned to new regulations.

"We have been preparing for changes," spokesman David Castelveter said.

The airlines have already taken action on some of the proposals, he said, such as putting contingency plans for tarmac delays in airline contracts of carriage, which is the basic agreement between travelers and their airlines.