For more than eight miserable hours, Kate Hanni sat aboard a grounded plane at a Texas airport, yards from apparently empty gates. A few weeks after that December ordeal, the brassy real estate agent from California's wine country took her fight for a passengers' bill of rights to Capitol Hill.
And politicians are listening.
On Saturday, as JetBlue was in the middle of a meltdown that left some passengers trapped aboard planes for almost half a day, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced a bill that would prohibit airlines from keeping travelers stuck on the tarmac for longer than three hours.
And Hanni's congressman, Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson, plans to file a similar bill in the House. He credits her with calling the issue to his attention.
"We need the legislation right now because the airlines won't police themselves," Hanni, 46, said recently in an interview in her bright Napa living room, where windows frame vineyard-covered hillsides.
A mother of two who moonlights as the lead singer of a funk band, Hanni has become the unlikely leader of a gathering movement. She has apparently tapped into a deep well of anger among many travelers.
Hanni's American Airlines flight was diverted from Dallas to Austin on Dec. 29 because of storms. The agonizing wait on the tarmac, she said, was only the beginning of her frustrations.
Hanni, her husband and two sons waited another 2 1/2 hours at the baggage claim before being told the bags would remain on the plane because the flight would continue on in the morning, she said.
American offered the put-out passengers only $10 discount vouchers for hotel rooms, Hanni said. (A spokesman for American could not confirm the amount but said the customer contract makes clear the company does not fully cover lodgings for weather-related cancellations.)
When she finally arrived in Dallas the next day to make her connecting flight to Mobile, Ala., Hanni said, a gate agent informed her that her bags were on the next flight to Mobile, but she was not.
"We're not going to quibble with the fact that we put our customers in a situation that they never should have been in," American spokesman Tim Wagner said. Passengers were kept on the plane in hopes of still getting them to Dallas that same day, he said.
In the end, Hanni said, it took her, her husband and two sons 57 hours to travel from San Francisco to Mobile, finally arriving at their ultimate destination, a lavish Gulf Coast spa, late on New Year's Eve.
Hanni said her December trip was supposed to be a restorative vacation, after she was jumped and beaten in June by a man in a ski mask at a house she was trying to sell. She ended up spending a big part of her trip in cramped airline seats and hotel rooms, wearing the same clothes day after day.
After returning home in January, Hanni began gathering the stories of fellow passengers' frustrations by e-mail. She posted many of them on a blog that quickly became the focal point of the passengers' bill of rights campaign.
By the end of the month, Hanni was in Washington, lobbying for pro-passenger legislation.
The movement gained momentum last week when a snowstorm left passengers trapped inside JetBlue planes at New York's Kennedy Airport for up to 10 1/2 hours. JetBlue introduced its own customer bill of rights earlier this week.
Along with imposing the three-hour limit, Boxer's bill would require airlines to provide food, water and sanitary bathrooms to passengers stuck on the tarmac.
Thompson's bill would also require airlines to keep passengers updated on the reasons for the delays, reveal which flights are chronically delayed and strive to return lost bags in 24 hours.
Airlines oppose such legislation, arguing they know better than politicians how to fix the problems.
"We think that inflexible standards that would be imposed through some sort of mandatory legislation could easily have the unintended effect of inconveniencing customers more in some situations," said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the airlines' main industry trade group.
Since Dec. 29, when 67 American flights were stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours, the airline has revised its policy to ensure passengers do not spend more than four hours in grounded planes, Wagner said. The company has sent out apologies and ticket vouchers to about 5,000 passengers affected that day, he said.
Nevertheless, Hanni said she does not plan to give up her fight to make air travel less unpleasant.
"I'm going to take it all the way," she said, "no matter what it takes."
On the Net:
Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights: http://strandedpassengers.blogspot.com
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