Feds Pass Hazy Guidelines for Air Travelers’ Rights

Locations in this article:  Detroit, MI

Hazy planePassenger rights advocates were dealt a heavy blow today when a federal panel approved a set of guidelines intended to help travelers stranded inside airplanes that seems to have no real teeth.

The 36-member “tarmac task force” was created last December after several incidents in which passengers were stranded in planes for up to 10 hours with little food, water, or information about when they would be allowed to disembark.

It was created in order to study airline policies and make recommendations on how they could improve their response times and contingency plans during delays.

The task force, which was dominated by airline industry and airport representatives, voted to approve a set of “best practices” to which adherence is entirely voluntary, and that sets no fixed limit on how long passengers can be forced to stay in planes.

Other recommendations include updating passengers on the status of the flight every 15 minutes, even if there is no new information to report; providing refreshments and entertainment “when practical”; and making “reasonable” efforts to keep bathrooms clean and usable.

Passenger rights advocates were predictably annoyed with the outcome, though many industry and government officials say that much was—and is—already being done to address stranded passengers’ concerns.

Kate Hanni, who founded the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights after her American Airlines flight sat on the ground for several hours in December 2006, said that the report contains “nothing enforceable where a passenger can say, ‘I won’t be held up for more than three hours or five hours or eight hours, or without a glass of water or a sandwich.’”

However, last fall the Transportation Department inspector general Calvin Scovel said that is agency is currently working on creating time-limit rules for airlines that have been delayed taking off.

In addition, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association said that some of the task force’s recommendations are already being adopted by the industry, and the American Society of Travel Agents claims that many airlines already have plans to deal with passengers stuck aboard aircraft.

Whether or not the industry actually follows through with its self-made plans remains to be seen. If not, the Obama administration will have its work cut out for it if turns out that the situation requires the government to step in and pass legislation to force the issue.

Related links: Detroit Free Press, Associated Press

By Karen Elowitt for PeterGreenberg.com.

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