Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, the sequel

Flash back to 1999.

That year, the airlines unleashed the full force of their legions of lobbyists and deep pockets in a successful effort to beat back a move in Congress to enact a meaningful Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

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The move in Congress was precipitated by a series of cases of airline disdain for customers, culminating on January 3, 1999, on the tarmac of Detroit Airport. There, an inbound Northwest flight arriving from Hawaii sat within a stone's throw of the terminal for more than eight hours. Toilets backed up. Food ran out. Passengers were left without their medications. And making a bad situation intolerable, the Northwest crew was less than forthcoming with information and updates.

The incident perfectly epitomized travelers' perceptions that the airlines were systematically disregarding passengers' most fundamental needs.

What the traveling public got instead of a federally mandated Airline Passenger Bill of Rights was a "we'll do better" promise from the airlines, codified under names such as Customer Commitment and posted in the nether regions of the airlines' websites.

As discussed in this blog entry, a recent review of those commitments by the Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General found the airlines' compliance lacking in just about every respect.

Rewind to December 29, 2006. Three American Airlines flights from San Francisco to Dallas—AA1348, AA534, and AA1008—were ordered by air traffic control to divert to Austin because of inclement weather in Dallas. And there the three jets sat, on the Austin Airport tarmac, for eight or more hours. Within easy walking distance of the terminal. Food and water ran out. Toilets filled to overflowing. And airline disservice was back in the news. As was the idea of a Passenger Bill or Rights.

At the grassroots level, the movement has coalesced around the "Coalition for Airline Passenger's Bill of Rights" blog launched by Kate Hanni and others directly affected by the Austin debacle.

As was the case in 1999, the public outrage has caught the eye of some lawmakers, raising the possibility yet again that Congress will act on behalf of the traveling public. But given the history of this issue, no one should underestimate the resources and cunning the airlines will deploy in order to defeat or at least dilute any meaningful legislation.

Do I think we need a Passenger Bill of Rights? Here's what I wrote in March, 2000:

"I am not in general an advocate of government meddling in the business of business. But in the airline industry, the 'invisible hand' of the free market just doesn't seem up to the task of aligning carriers' behavior with consumers' needs. Accordingly, I for one would encourage Congress to revisit the need for a federally mandated Passenger Bill of Rights, including the disclosure of meaningful frequent flyer program information.

"If you think that's too drastic a solution, I would ask you to at least join me in pressing the airlines to show us the respect we deserve by providing us with meaningful, actionable information."

My feelings remain the same today.

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