Angry AA Passengers Want Airline Changes

Jan. 24--Passengers on an American Airlines flight that was stuck on the tarmac in Austin for nearly 10 hours last month are pushing for a national Passengers Bill of Rights to protect traveling consumers.

The proposal would require airlines to return passengers to terminal gates after three hours on the tarmac. It would also impose penalties on airlines for losing baggage and bumping passengers, and create a consumer committee to review and investigate complaints.

The measure doesn't yet have a backer in Congress. But it comes as lawmakers are increasing their scrutiny of the industry, with a hearing scheduled for today before the Senate Commerce Committee on the impact of airline mergers and consolidation.

Heavy passenger loads during the past year have accompanied increased delays and complaints, according to the U.S. Transportation Department.

"Enough is enough," said Kate Hanni, a Napa, Calif., resident who was stuck with her husband on American Flight 1348 in Austin for nearly 10 hours Dec. 29 during a trip from San Francisco to Mobile, Ala. Her flight was supposed to land at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport for a connection, but heavy thunderstorms diverted the plane to Austin.

"Never again should anyone be left in a plane without information, without food, with toxic air, overflowing toilets, no remuneration and no explanation," she said.

Officials with Fort Worth-based American have apologized to passengers for the long delays and issued vouchers worth up to $500. But they also point out that the events that day were because of an unusual storm in North Texas coupled with the fact that airplanes were flying with full loads on a holiday weekend.

"The thunderstorm event of Dec. 29, 2006, that spread almost the entire length of Texas was one of the most unusual weather circumstances we've seen in 20 years," said Tim Wagner, a spokesman. More than 80 flights were diverted from D/FW that day.

Hanni and her husband recruited 13 other passengers to sign onto the effort. They've written to Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, with a draft proposal for the law and have launched an Internet blog at www.strandedpassengers.blogspot.com.

Hanni hasn't ruled out filing a lawsuit against American but said it would be a last resort.

"If the only way to send a message to the airlines is to pursue it from that angle, then absolutely," she said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

Stories of the long delays have been featured in national news media, including The Wall Street Journal and NBC Nightly News, in recent weeks. Passengers say they ran out of food, toilets overflowed and some lacked access to medication while stranded on the tarmac.

Hanni called the conditions "subhuman."

"I was fighting off a panic attack the entire time," said Mark Vail of Madera, Calif. "I was counting raindrops in the window, doing anything to try to distract myself."

All the while, he said, "I kept seeing Southwest Airlines flights taking off and landing."

American officials say they were doing their best to cope with an extraordinary spate of bad weather at the carrier's largest hub.

Unlike most storms that quickly sweep over D/FW Airport from the west, the Dec. 29 tempest moved north from the southwest and hung over the airport for hours, Wagner said. Airline officials were hoping that the storm would lift so diverted planes could fly to D/FW and passengers could get to connecting flights.

If the airline had brought the plane into a gate in Austin early, it would have immediately been a canceled flight, he said. It then would have been nearly impossible to get the passengers onto later flights because most airplanes were already full.

"People would have been stranded in Austin for two or three days, maybe in a hotel room or maybe there at the airport, waiting for a flight," he said. "That's what we were trying to avoid."

Still, Wagner said that "the extremity of their experience was a mistake, and we've apologized for that." He said the airline has tweaked some policies and re-emphasized others in an attempt to avoid repeating the situation.

Some of the affected passengers said the airline responded only after the story was featured in the national press. And they say they haven't seen any indication that American is working to prevent future problems.

"There hasn't been any attempt to contact us; they haven't said anything," said Andy Welch of Lynn Creek, Mo., who was also on Flight 1348. "It infuriates me. How can anyone think they can run a business this way?"

An attempt was made in 2000 to pass a similar slate of protections for traveling consumers, and the idea was revived in 2002. Neither attempt resulted in a law being passed.

This time, however, Hanni is hopeful that the issue will have traction in Washington, D.C., particularly as lawmakers consider the impact that mergers could have on the industry.

"I believe we're reached the tipping point," she said. "The only thing that will change this is action from our elected officials."

PASSENGERS BILL OF RIGHTS: A group of travelers who were stranded on the tarmac for up to 10 hours last month have proposed a slate of protections for travelers. Their recommendations include:

--Establishing procedures for airlines to return passengers to a terminal gate after three hours on the tarmac.

--Requiring airlines to respond to complaints within 24 hours and resolve them within two weeks.

--Forcing airlines to publish a list of chronically delayed flights online.

--Compensation for bumped passengers or passengers whose flights are delayed by more than 12 hours at 150 percent of the ticket price.

--Compensation for passengers whose baggage is lost or mishandled.

--Creation of a Passenger Review Committee made up of nonairline consumers to review and investigate complaints.

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