Friday, February 16, 2007

NY Times - Passenger Bill Of Rights

February 16, 2007, 11:25 am
Held Hostage on the Tarmac: Time for A Passenger Bill of Rights?
By Tom Zeller Jr.

Passengers were outraged at having to stay aboard JetBlue Flight 751 as it sat motionless on the tarmac at J.F.K. on Wednesday — for more than eight hours.

More than 1,000 passengers on nine different JetBlue flights were stranded on the tarmac for what must have seemed an eternity at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York during Wednesday’s snow storm. One flight, bound for Aruba, sat for nearly 11 hours, according to some reports.
It didn’t need to be that way.
“There was no excuse for that one,” JetBlue’s chief executive, David Neeleman, told USA Today.
The air and toilets on the plane went foul, and the passengers, who well understood the impact of the snow, were given little or no information about why they couldn’t just be set free in the terminal. Roll a stairway over? Bring a bus? Allow them to walk? No? Why not?
“I’ve been stuck on the tarmac many times in my travel back and forth to California — sometimes, with the weather and traffic, it’s unavoidable,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, , in a statement posted to her Web site yesterday. “But to keep passengers — which usually include infants and the elderly — on a plane for eleven hours in the worst of conditions is absurd. If a plane is stuck on the tarmac or at the gate for hours, a passenger should have the right to deplane. No one should be held hostage on an aircraft when clearly they can find a way to get people off safely.”
The San Jose Mercury News reported this morning that a fellow Californian and Democrat, Rep. Mike Thompson is drafting similar legislation in the House.
Both legislators appear to be taking their cues from a group called the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, founded earlier this year by Kate Hanni of Napa Valley, Calif.
Ms. Hanni had her own tarmac nightmare, on an American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Dallas on Dec. 29 that was diverted to Austin in severe weather.
That flight sat on the runway in Austin for eight grueling hours, and as Joe Sharkey reported for The Times earlier this month, Ms. Hanni “spoke out to denounce the indifference that she said American Airlines showed toward her and her fellow passengers, and to demand a campaign for a federal bill of passenger rights.”
Now it appears that’s coming to pass — but it’s not the first time, as Joe noted:
On New Year’s weekend in 1999, a blizzard left thousands of passengers stranded for hours on Northwest Airlines planes at the airport in Detroit as food and water ran out and toilets became unusable.
The debacle made headlines and prompted cries for federal legislation to force airlines to adopt better customer service procedures. The airlines prevailed against legislation, though, promising that they would police themselves.
Almost nothing has changed, Joe noted, so the drive for new rules is gathering steam once again.
Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, appeared on C-Span last week to discuss her appearance on Capitol Hill to lobby Congress for new legislation.
It is unclear just how much of the coalition’s wish list will be reflected in the bills to be proposed in Congress. Among the sought-after passenger rights posted at the group’s Web site are these:
* Establish procedures to respond to all passenger complaints within 24 hours and with appropriate resolution within 2 weeks.* Notify passengers within ten minutes of a delay of known diversions, delays and cancellations via airport overhead announcement, on aircraft announcement, and posting on airport television monitors.* Establish procedures for returning passengers to terminal gate when delays occur so that no plane sits on the tarmac for longer than three hours without connecting to a gate.* Provide for the essential needs of passengers during air- or ground-based delays of longer than 3 hours, including food, water, sanitary facilities, and access to medical attention.* Provide for the needs of disabled, elderly and special-needs passengers by establishing procedures for assisting with the moving and retrieving of baggage, and the moving of passengers from one area of airport to another at all times by airline personnel.* Publish and update monthly on the company’s public web site a list of chronically delayed flights, meaning those flight delayed thirty minutes or more, at least forty percent of the time, during a single month.* Compensate “bumped” passengers or passengers delayed due to flight cancellations or postponements of over 12 hours by refund of 150% of ticket price.* The formal implementation of a Passenger Review Committee, made up not of airline executives and employees but rather passengers and consumers – that would have the formal ability to review and investigate complaints.* Make lowest fare information, schedules and itineraries, cancellation policies and frequent flyer program requirements available in an easily accessed location and updated in real-time.* Ensure that baggage is handled without delay or injury; if baggage is lost or misplaced, the airline shall notify customer of baggage status within 12 hours and provide compensation equal to current market value of baggage and its contents.* Require that these rights apply equally to all airline code-share partners including international partners.
Whatever the final draft of any proposed bill may say, legislation in general already has its opponents. The San Francisco Chronicle today quotes Michael Boyd of the Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm, who suggested that people were trying to politicize the issue, and said that introducing a bill-of-rights law would be “grandstanding beloved of certain denizens of the Washington deep.”
In a statement posted to its Web site earlier this month, the Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel planners, also issued its opposition to any Passenger Bill of Rights.
“Congressional mandating of customer service standards in any industry represents a dangerous precedent,” the statement said. “In the case of the airline industry, such legislation would increase business travel costs, stifle innovation and raise safety issues.”
Apparently, a particular concern of the coalition is that if such a bill is passed, members of Congress will continually add tidbits of pork to it every time they are up for re-election. The group cited an example from the last time such legislation was considered, back in 1999:
[O]ne Committee Member informed everyone in the hearing room that her husband had made a really important suggestion. He had left a book on a plane after a recent flight. His idea was to write into law that in such a situation it would be an airline’s responsibility to find and return the book to him, or face financial penalties.
This is a classical case of where the cure can be far worse than the disease!
That example notwithstanding, we have to admit we’ve always wondered why it was necessary to keep passengers sealed up in that tube for hours on end, when the terminal is only a few hundred yards away and it would be so much more humane to let people wait there. But then, 8-hour ordeals don’t happen every day — and as one critic of proposed legislation put it, outraged passengers can vote with their dollars, and choose another airline.
Of course, that’s not entirely accurate either, especially in some smaller markets.
So what do readers think? Do you have nightmarish tales from the tarmac of your own? Is a Passengers’ Bill of Rights asking too much? Give us your thoughts.
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