The Travel Detective

A Bill of Rights for Air Passengers?

Locations in this article:  Austin, TX

Plane Gate Airport LateSeptember 19, 2007

It all apparently blew up on Valentine’s Day, earlier this year — on that stormy February day . . . that’s when the debacle at JetBlue at JFK happened, with some passengers stranded on planes as long as 11 hours.

And while that incident got a huge amount of media play, another event — back on December 29, 2006, still resonates. That’s when passengers on an American Airlines plane claimed they were kept virtual prisoners for hours in Austin, Texas.

One of those passengers, Kate Hanni, from California, decided to do something about it when she finally got home.

She is now in the forefront of the airline passenger rights movement, and this week, her group built a mock jet out on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. — complete with stranded passengers, screaming babies, no food, water, and overflowing toilets — to dramatize the need for federal legislation mandating a passenger bill of rights.

Indeed, the events of December 2006 and February 2007 did get the attention of Congress, and legislation was introduced by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) to provide that Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Act.

  • The legislation requires airlines to offer passengers the option of safely leaving a plane they have boarded once that plane has sat on the ground three hours after the plane door has closed. This option would be provided every three hours that the plane continues to sit on the ground.
  • The legislation also requires airlines to provide passengers with necessary services such as food, potable water and adequate restroom facilities while a plane is delayed on the ground.
  • The legislation provides two exceptions to the three-hour option. The pilot may decide to not allow passengers to deplane if he or she reasonably believes their safety or security would be at risk due to extreme weather or other emergencies. Alternately, if the pilot reasonably determines that the flight will depart within 30 minutes after the three-hour period, he or she can delay the deplaning option for an additional 30 minutes.

How effective will/can this bill be? In my opinion, while it is well intentioned, there are too many commas — loopholes you can taxi a 747 through.

And while Hanni lobbies to get the bill on the floor for a vote, other battles are looming. Airlines are claiming there’s no need for a federal law, that it’s the air traffic control system at fault.

They’re also blaming private aviation for delays. Other groups are blaming the abundance of small regional jets for the problems, and then there are the air traffic controllers themselves, who claim they are overworked and understaffed. The answer: they’re ALL right.

But what is being done?

So far, at least one U.S. state isn’t waiting for the feds to rescue them. Earlier this summer, the New York State legislature unanimously passed (by a vote of 60-0) a bill that would require airlines with airplanes stuck on the ground for more than three hours because of poor weather conditions or other types of delays to provide passengers with provide food, water, clean toilets, and fresher air.

The bill passed and also would create an “Office of Airline Consumer Advocate” that would assist fliers by providing them with a contact person to help in communicating with the appropriate officials. Airlines could face fines of $1,000 per passenger for failing to provide the amenities. And New York Governor Eliot Spitzer signed the bill on August 2.

While the legislation doesn’t take effect until January 1, 2008, the major U.S. airlines are expected to go into federal court to get the bill thrown out on the basis that existing federal law prohibits U.S. states from regulating the airlines.

Will the law be tested? Of course. Expect the first fight to start shortly after champagne corks are popped this coming New Year’s Eve.

Peter Greenberg’s Greatest Hits of Airline Mishaps:

Citizen Journalism and Flight Delays

The Virgin Debacle(s)

The Fallout from US Airways Continues

The Delta Blues

Why I Boycott British Airports