Passengers' Rights Advocates Seek Stronger Protections in FAA Bills

Advocates for airline passengers are pressuring lawmakers to strengthen consumer protection language in House and Senate bills to reauthorize operations of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Both versions of the FAA legislation include provisions designed to make airline passengers stranded on the tarmac more comfortable and to ensure that passengers are given more information about flight delays. But advocates for travelers say more protections and direct oversight are needed than either bill would provide.

"They absolutely don't go far enough to protect passengers' rights," said Kate Hanni, the founder of the Coalition for Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, a group formed by travelers stranded at Austin International Airport in December of 2006.

The House legislation (HR 2881), which the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved June 28, would require airlines to develop "emergency contingency plans" that specify how "food, water, restroom facilities, cabin ventilation and access to medical treatment" will be provided to passengers stuck waiting to take off for extended periods.

But the bill does not include a requirement that passengers be allowed to deplane after a set amount of time -- a mandate that "bill of rights" advocates say is central to protecting consumers.

Consumer advocates renewed their push for a passengers' bill of rights earlier this year, after JetBlue and American Airlines passengers were stranded for hours on parked planes because of bad weather. A 1999 incident involving Northwest Airlines also prompted calls for a passengers' rights list, but the industry quickly agreed to voluntary standards as an alternative.

Some lawmakers now think those standards need to be augmented.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., lauded leaders of the transportation committee for including in the broader FAA bill aspects of stand-alone legislation (HR 1303) he introduced in the wake of the JetBlue and American incidents.

Thompson characterized the FAA bill as a promising step toward bolstering passengers' rights.

"Right now, passengers are at the mercy of the airlines," Thompson said in a statement. "When delays occur, passengers have absolutely no assurance that they'll be provided with basic necessities, like food, drinking water and a reasonable temperature."

FAA reauthorization legislation (S 1300) that the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved May 16 would go further.

That bill incorporates elements of passenger-protection legislation (S 678) authored by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine.

Most notably, the Senate reauthorization bill, which the chamber has yet to act on, includes a requirement that passengers be given the option to get off a plane after three hours and that airlines develop plans to inform passengers about when they will be allowed to deplane.

"I hope that the airlines will do right by their customers and develop their own plans to keep passengers safe and comfortable," Boxer said in a May 3 statement. "But if they don't, this legislation will ensure that passengers are protected."

Hanni said airlines cannot be trusted to develop plans that will protect passengers.

"It can't be left to the airlines because they are making economic decisions that are putting passengers at risk," Hanni said.

A spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the trade association that represents major U.S. airlines, declined to comment on the issue.

The industry has repeatedly argued that airlines can and should be allowed to address such problems itself. JetBlue, for instance, published its own passengers' bill of rights after February's delays.

But that set of guidelines does not guarantee that passengers will be allowed to deplane unless the delay exceeds five hours.

For lesser delays, Jet Blue pledges vouchers of up to the full roundtrip price paid by passengers, depending on the length of the ground delay.

"For customers who experience an onboard Ground Delay for more than 5 hours, JetBlue will take necessary action so that customers may deplane. JetBlue will also provide customers experiencing an onboard Ground Delay with food and drink, access to restrooms and, as necessary, medical treatment," the company policy states.

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