Passenger Rights Movement Taking Off

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.

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.

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