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."
The proposed Passengers Bill of Rights would require airlines to return passengers to terminal gates after three hours on the tarmac.
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.
Because airlines are operating with nearly full flights, it is more difficult to rebook passengers who get delayed or stranded.
The airline industry is resisting mandatory guidelines, preferring voluntary measures instead.