In the depths of the winter travel season, thunderstorms in Texas and ice storms in the Northeast grounded dozens of commercial aircraft, stranding thousands of fliers in planes parked on tarmacs for as long as 11 hours. Many travelers went without adequate food and water, or even functioning bathrooms, while they waited.
Those horror stories demonstrate the need for an airline passengers' bill of rights, consumer advocates say. A federal declaration of those rights would spell out mandatory customer service standards -- backed by the force of law.
Many in Congress agree with the advocates. The Senate Commerce Committee has approved a bill of rights co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., as part of a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. The matter will be taken up in the Senate and House when they try to reconcile versions of the FAA bills.
Travel experts fear widespread snafus could happen again this summer. Severe weather, overextended and outdated air traffic control systems, and reductions in the number of flights by cash-strapped airlines could combine during the busiest summer travel season since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to create frustrating experiences.
Already there are problems.
The number of flight delays hit a record high in the first four months of this year, according to the Department of Transportation. More than 27 percent of flights arrived at least 15 minutes late or were canceled, the most since the department began keeping records in 1995.
Looking for legislative help
Advocacy groups have won consumer protection bills in other industries, often in the face of opposition from affected businesses. In 2004, for example, California's Public Utilities Commission passed a sweeping telecommunications consumer bill of rights, but softened it last year over the objections of consumer advocates.
Air passenger advocates are looking to Capitol Hill for redress.
"I'm lobbying the heck out of Congress right now,'' said Kate Hanni, who was in Washington on Wednesday. Hanni founded the nonprofit Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, which claims 15,000 members, early this year. Hanni, a Napa real estate broker, started the organization after being stuck on an American Airlines plane in Austin, Texas, for nine hours in December without adequate water or working toilets.
Hanni gave a satirical award Wednesday to call attention to airline service breakdowns. The "When you're grounded, they treat you like dirt'' award was given to American Airlines. The coalition said that based on federal flight data, American had the most planes delayed on runways for hours and not properly serviced. Aloha Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and Southwest Airlines had the fewest serious runway delays, according to the coalition.
American didn't immediately reply to a request for comment.
Boxer has teamed with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, to introduce a version of the bill of rights in the Senate, while Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, has crafted a similar bill in the House. Although details of the bills -- and their prospects -- differ, both outline procedures for airlines and airports to follow during future service emergencies and require airlines to stock enough food and potable water to tide passengers over during long delays.
Boxer and Snowe attached their proposal to the bill to reauthorize the FAA, whose existence otherwise expires on Sept. 30. Thompson's bill has stalled in the House Aviation Subcommittee.
Airline reform efforts have been mounted on Capitol Hill before, most notably in 1999, when proposed federal legislation was withdrawn by lawmakers after airline executives promised Congress they would voluntarily upgrade their customer service standards.
This time, militant consumer advocates aren't taking the airline industry's word for it.
Some leading travel industry figures, however, say passing more laws is the wrong way to go.
Not only would a passengers' bill of rights not solve the basic problems, it could actually make matters worse, argued David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a consumer advocacy group in Washington.
"The proposed legislation is feel-good, but ironically won't do good for passengers,'' Stempler said. 'No government penalties needed'
Stempler said that a passengers' bill of rights could cause airlines to cancel flights to avoid paying compensation to passengers, thus inconveniencing people even more and raising operational costs for the airlines. One consequence could be higher fares, he said.
"The marketplace provides sufficient penalties to discipline the airlines for extensive delays and no government-imposed penalties are needed,'' Stempler argued.
"The marketplace has effectively disciplined JetBlue,'' he said, referring to the low-cost carrier that lost millions and suffered the resignation of its well-regarded founder and CEO, David Neeleman, after a Valentine's Day ice storm stranded hundreds at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, bringing withering media attention to the carrier.
Kevin Mitchell, head of the Business Travel Coalition, a Radnor, Pa., nonprofit organization that represents about 140 corporate travel planners, also opposes a federally mandated passengers' bill of rights.
Noting that the Boxer-Snowe Senate bill proposes letting passengers deplane after three hours, providing the pilot doesn't object on safety grounds, Mitchell said that could encourage airlines to simply scrap a delayed flight rather than wait to take off later.
"Yes, a plane may have been on the tarmac for 3 1/2 or four hours, but the majority of business travelers on a Friday evening would rather get home to families later than desired than spend a weekend in a distant city,'' he said.
"It is imprudent to mix financial incentives and penalties with airline operations, go, no-go decisions and safety judgments,'' Mitchell said. "It is supreme hubris to think that Congress could divine a set of passenger service standards that would deliver intended benefits without risking safety margins.''
Despite the skeptics, there may be a better chance of passing legislation this year than in years past, thanks to mounting public dissatisfaction, Hanni said.
"This is the first time a passenger bill of rights has gotten out of a congressional committee," she said of the Boxer-Snowe bill. "I think we're going to get something through, but what it's going to look like (after possible amendments), I don't know.''
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