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Avoid pain on a plane? The fight for passenger rights

TODAY Travel editor Peter Greenberg explains the need for federal legislation and how Capitol Hill is looking out for you.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

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.

Then there was the flight diverted to Syracuse where the exasperated pilot finally just ordered out — for pizza — and fed all the passengers. They didn’t want to be in Syracuse, but at least they ate.

When a Delta flight was stuck on the runway at JFK for more than three hours, a frustrated passenger just took out his video camera and interviewed everyone — including the pilot. Then the police were called, and the passengers (and the videographer) got what they wanted — they were allowed off the plane.

And while these incidents 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.

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 Mall in Washington, D.C. — complete with stranded passengers, screaming babies, no food or water, and overflowing toilets — to dramatize the need for federal legislation mandating a passenger bill of rights.

Indeed, the events of the last ten months did get the attention of Congress, and legislation was then introduced by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) to provide the 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. It’s that “if” part that troubles me. Delays are never announced as “there will be a three-hour delay.” They are creeping, and 30 minutes become an hour, an hour becomes 90 minutes, becomes...

Language in the legislation that literally gives the airlines an “out:” “if the pilot reasonably determines that the flight will depart within 30 minutes...” In reality, there can be no reasonable determination, because after three hours, the only sane decision is to return to the gate, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which concern passengers. There are fuel and crew time issues as well.

So, as well intentioned as the legislation is, it’s doubtful that it will have much immediate or worthwhile impact.

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 food, water, clean toilets and fresher air. The bill 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 Gov. 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 after the stroke of midnight, December 31, shortly after champagne corks are popped this coming New Year’s Eve and the law supposedly takes effect.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s travel editor. His column appears weekly on Visit his Web site at .