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.

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 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."

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