If you're still fuming from being confined in an airplane sitting on the tarmac last year, as many thousands of passengers were, some relief may be at hand. Maybe even some revenge.
There are developments on three fronts on behalf of consumers who feel antagonized for what they consider intolerable periods of time stuck for hours in airplanes.
It's possible that Congress, when it takes up a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, perhaps in February, will include in it protections for passengers who are inconvenienced by being stranded on airplanes for three hours or more.
New York decided it couldn't wait for Congress to act. On New Year's Day, the first-in-the-nation airline passengers' bill of rights became law, requiring airlines to provide stranded passengers at New York airports with critical supplies to make delays more tolerable.
The law was in response to numerous incidences of passengers being stranded, but primarily because thousands of passengers were kept in grounded aircraft at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York during a snow and ice storm last Valentine's Day, some for up to 10 hours.
The law requires that once airplanes leave gates in New York and have been on the tarmac for more than three hours, there must be drinking water, snacks and other refreshments, electric-generation service for fresh air and lights and removal of waste from holding tanks for on-board restrooms. It carries a penalty of $1,000 per passenger per violation.
"It became very evident that the government needed to step in and see that passengers are treated humanely on these flights," said New York Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, a co-sponsor of the bill that Gov. Eliot Spitzer signed into law. "This is home to the most delayed airports in the country," said Gianaris, whose Queens district includes LaGuardia Airport.
Lawmakers in New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut are in various stages of preparing similar legislation, said Gianaris. If such a proposal is under consideration in California it hasn't surfaced yet.
The Air Transport Association of America, the trade association representing the major US air carriers, is battling such legislation, on the theory that decisions need to rest in the hands of cockpit crews. The trade association challenged Gianaris' bill in US District Court in Albany, arguing that commercial aviation is best regulated by one source, the federal government, not individual states.
Judge Lawrence Kahn, in dismissing the association's challenge, ruled last month that the New York law covers legitimate health and safety issues and is not pre-empted by the federal Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 as it does not affect an airline's fares, routes or service.
The trade association said it believes Kahn misinterpreted the law and it is considering an appeal.
And finally, Kate Hanni, the Napa real estate agent who gave up her day job to become a consumer advocate and form the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights to lobby for the federal legislation, took the matter of "tarmac confinement" to court last week.
She filed a lawsuit against American Airlines, alleging false imprisonment during the nine hours she sat in a plane that had been diverted from Dallas to Austin, Texas, in the midst of a 1,000-mile-long thunderstorm on Dec. 29, 2006. The suit, filed Friday in Napa County Superior Court — just under the deadline of a one-year statute of limitations — also accuses the world's largest airline of intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence and breach of contract.
American Airlines, based in Fort Worth, Texas, says it does not comment on pending litigation, other than to say that it has implemented practices to better deal with inclement weather and that it was forced to divert 121 planes that day for safety reasons.
The airline, however, does specifically dispute one of Hanni's claims about her experience on Flight 1348, from San Francisco to Dallas. In the suit she alleges, "The toilets became full and would not flush and the stench of human excrement and body odor filled the plane." American said, "None of the three restroom toilets ever overflowed. In fact, the toilets were serviced at the earliest opportunity by ground crews."
A Department of Transportation Inspector General's report said the airline provided "tolerable restroom facilities on the aircraft delayed in Austin; however, some passengers felt American's efforts were inadequate in that regard."
Another passenger stranded that day in Austin, Catherine Ray of Fayetteville, Ark., has filed a suit similar to Hanni's against American Airlines in state court in Arkansas. The two were in separate airplanes, but Ray said the toilet in her airplane "could not be flushed anymore" and there was no water to wash one's hands.
Both Hanni and Ray are asking judges to certify their cases as class actions, on behalf of some 12,000 American passengers who were confined for hours in airplanes "in poor to deplorable conditions" on Dec. 29, 2006.
"It fundamentally changed my life," Hanni said of her experience, which prompted a career change — to walk away from 17 years as a real estate agent as well as the loss of relatively high income to become an unpaid consumer advocate.
"Anyone can sell real estate," said Hanni. "I don't know anyone else who would stick his or her neck out to create a coalition to take on the airlines, every day, and do it for nothing. But I have to, because passengers have no lobby. There's a callous disregard for passengers."
Hanni, who formed the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights www.flyersrights.com to develop passenger-friendly legislation, added, "I miss the money" from real estate. "But I'm so excited to be involved with something forward reaching where I can leave my mark."
Hanni is lobbying in part to try to preserve a provision in the House version of the passengers' bill of rights requiring airlines to have a strategy for taking passengers off airplanes. The bill also requires airlines to provide for passengers' basic needs.
Storms can cause passengers to be held in airplanes on the tarmac, but, said Paul Hudson, a New York lawyer representing Hanni, most tarmac confinements are the result of congestion, mechanical problems with the aircraft, lack of ready flight crews, air traffic control malfunctions, diversions from other airports, airport curfews, or lack of customs and immigration or security personnel to process incoming international flights.
Hudson, who is also executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a nonprofit group monitoring safety and security issues, negotiated a settlement on behalf of 4,000 Northwest Airlines passengers who were confined in airplanes from four to 11 hours during a snowstorm at Detroit Metro Airport in January 1999. They shared in a settlement of $7.1 million.
Hudson believes, as Hanni alleges in her lawsuit against American Airlines, that confinements are intended to avoid "expenses and lawful obligations to passengers associated with strandings, diversions and canceled flights."
Of the airlines, he added, "Their primary defense is, 'This is an act of God.' I guess we're supposed to sue God."