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Airlines fail to stymie New York passenger rights bill

For all the recent outcry about the need for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, there has only been one small step in that direction: a New York law set to take effect on January 1 requiring airlines to provide passengers with food, water, and working toilets on jets stranded on the tarmac for three or more hours.

That legislation is limited in two significant respects. First, as a New York law it applies only to New York state airports. And second, the list of rights falls far short of the more robust passenger protection many travelers and consumer advocates, myself included, feel the public deserves.

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Still, the airlines and their apologists fought the New York initiative with all the legal and lobbying resources at their disposal, including a lawsuit requesting the law be overturned. The challenge, filed by the Air Transport Association (ATA), an organization representing the interests of the airlines, argued that laws governing airline services can only be enacted at the federal level, and that individual states had no such authority.

The Associated Press reports that U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn rejected the ATA's argument yesterday, ruling that the services in question "constitute a health and safety issue, not airline 'services' that can be regulated only by federal authorities." So, barring further appeals, the law will go into effect as written.

There's a school of thought that the New York bill, now that it has cleared the hurdles thrown up by the airlines, is likely to be used as a template and adopted by other states. That would be unfortunate.

While any bill of rights is a step in the right direction, the New York version is much too weak to serve as a model for a real, comprehensive Passenger Bill of Rights. And energy spent in pursuit of such a flawed bill could be better spent pursuing a more fulsome solution.

The airlines got one thing right in their opposition to the New York legislation: Passenger protection should be enacted at the federal level, not for the convenience of the airlines but to provide wide ranging safeguards for the health, safety, and dignity of their customers.

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