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Passenger Bill of Rights Gets New Life

The Wall Street Journal's Middle Seat Terminal blog reports that Senators Barbara Boxer (D, California) and Olympia Snowe (R, Maine) re-introduced the so-called passenger bill of rights in the Senate. The legislation should look familiar to anyone who's followed the debate over airline consumer protections, which began in earnest when JetBlue stranded thousands of passengers nearly two years ago.

The bill calls for airlines to offer the option of deplaning after spending three hours or more on the tarmac and to provide food, water, and proper ventilation and climate control while delayed on the ground; for the Department of Transportation (DOT) to create a hotline so passengers may alert the agency of delays; and for a program of DOT-led reviews of delayed flights with possible fines for airlines and airports that do not comply.

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The bill also makes exceptions to the three-hour rule, allowing the pilot to remain on the tarmac if he or she expects to take off within a half hour or if returning to the tarmac poses a safety risk due to weather or other circumstances.

So, like I said, this is essentially the same bill that's been floating around for the past few years. What's different now, of course, is the small matter of a new president and a shift in Congressional party dominance.

It's generally agreed that Democrats are more open to the idea of a passenger bill of rights, and with a solid Senate majority, the bill stands a good chance of passing and moving on. Would President Obama sign such legislation? I dug around for specifics from his policy proposals, but couldn't find anything (to be fair, he's got plenty of other things to worry about). But back during the election, USA Today took a look at Senator McCain's and Obama's positions on travel-related issues. At that time, Kate Hanni, president of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, said, "I'm very confident if Obama and Biden win, we'll get [passenger rights] legislation." Obama also co-sponsored Senator Boxer's initial passenger bill of rights, issued shortly after the JetBlue fiasco.

USA Today also reported that Vice President Joe Biden had been rather outspoken on the issue, and offered detailed passenger rights proposals during his brief run at the presidency.

So it seems all signs point to hope for the passenger bill of rights, right? We'll have to wait and see. The bill has been and always will be an extremely contentious issue, even if it is passed. But there's little denying (in my mind, at least) that such legislation would be a good thing for travelers and for the industry as a whole.

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