WASHINGTON - Fliers who were stranded on American Airlines flights into Dallas late last year are taking their horror stories to Capitol Hill this week, lobbying Congress to establish a passenger bill of rights that might prevent a repeat of the debacle.
They've already won support from some lawmakers, but their effort could face challenges ahead.
The airline industry is resisting mandatory guidelines, preferring voluntary measures instead. And senior lawmakers who oversee aviation matters are hardly rushing toward the issue as some did late last decade.
The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., said such consumer complaints can be considered this year during the larger process of reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration.
The top Republican on that committee, Rep. John Mica of Florida, acknowledged that the passenger rights issue could re-emerge this year but said he wouldn't push anything himself.
Previous efforts to get the industry to adopt voluntary measures have been "semi-successful," Mica said. But with more air traffic congestion and delayed flights on the horizon, he said, "I know we're going to have a return to the same issues that were raised pre-9/11."
A group of passengers from those Dec. 29 flights, who are appealing to lawmakers this week in Washington, said they won't quit until legislation is passed.
They've teamed up with 300 other fliers who were also stranded on planes - with little food and a stench emanating from overfilled toilets - when their flights to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport were rerouted due to stormy weather.
"It could happen to any one of us," said Sheila Pfister, who was stuck for more than 12 hours on the tarmac in Austin while trying to visit her daughter in Plano. "Someone has to be accountable."
Fort Worth-based American Airlines Inc. says it has apologized to passengers who were on planes for more than three hours and sent them vouchers. The carrier said 70 of the 88 diverted flights that day had passengers who were forced to wait aboard grounded aircraft for more than three hours.
Kate Hanni, a lead organizer of the effort, said passengers understand that weather problems can disrupt their flights. But airlines should be forced to get passengers to available gates and provide adequate facilities onboard, she said.
Hanni, a real estate broker from Napa Valley, Calif., was stranded inside a plane on the ground in Austin for nine hours when her flight from San Francisco to D/FW was rerouted.
"We were diverted because of weather," she said. "But what happened three hours after our grounding on the tarmac had nothing to do with the weather."
The bill of rights she and other passengers are proposing would require a plane delayed on a tarmac for more than three hours to get a gate. It also would force carriers to provide food, water and other facilities on board for delays longer than two hours.
The group wants airlines to pay the market value of lost bags and their contents rather than a depreciated rate, and provide the compensation within 12 hours.
Among other things, carriers would be required under the proposal to respond to passenger complaints within 24 hours and resolve them in two weeks.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., who met with Hanni and other fliers along with airline industry representatives this week, said he sympathized with the passengers for going through a "horrific situation" and with airlines that are trying to move passengers quickly and safely.
Voluntary measures are not enough, Thompson said, but the passengers and airlines are not "as far apart as the two groups think they are."
"This particular situation goes beyond the pale," Thompson said of the Dec. 29 flights. Airlines agreeing to new rules would win respect from their customers and "insulate them from a lot of criticism and other problems that they might face," he said.
The airline industry says it's opposed to new rules but is willing to engage in discussions with passengers and lawmakers to find improvements.
The latest push toward a bill of rights is based on "isolated incidents that are not indicative of the effort that the carriers are making to improve their service," said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the industry trade group.
"We've got a stake in this," Castelveter said. "The airlines more than anybody recognize the need to service their customers. You have a decision to make when you travel. . . . We want your choice to be to fly."
Airlines fought off efforts to impose new federal requirements after a 1999 snowstorm left thousands of Northwest Airlines Inc. passengers stranded in Detroit. The issue continued to arise into early 2001 but hasn't drawn much attention since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that devastated the industry.
Carriers have said that new rules might create more problems during a bad weather event. A plane that's waiting on a tarmac could be in a queue to resume its flight after being diverted, for instance. If the plane were to return to a gate, it could be grounded even longer - leaving passengers more likely to be stranded outside of their final destinations.
Hanni said she and other stranded passengers are calling their representatives and launching petitions to ensure the issue does not die.
"We're asking for accountability," she said, "and we don't know any other way of doing it than this process."
(c) 2007, The Dallas Morning News.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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