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The Airline Passenger’s Bill of Rights

Way back in the last century, during the winter of 1999, Northwest Airlines famously stranded a plane full of passengers on a tarmac for eight horrific hours. Without food, water, working toilets, honest or timely information, or the simple ability to walk off the plane despite being a couple hundred yards from the terminal gate at a major airport, the passengers were subject to an almost inhuman experience in a metal canister.

Sound familiar? That’s because the same thing happened again — twice within the past two months. In December 2006 it was American Airlines, which stranded passengers for eight hours on a tarmac in Austin, Texas, shortly before New Year’s while planes took off and landed all around them. Then, during a winter storm on February 14, 10 JetBlue flights were significantly delayed at New York’s Kennedy airport — one for a whopping 11 hours.

You may recall the firestorm of media controversy after the 1999 incident; when passengers sued for “false imprisonment and breach of contract,” the media got hold of the story, and well, the rest is history. The endgame was the introduction of a voluntary Customer Service Initiative from the airlines that was supposed to ensure that this sort of thing never happened again — not that anyone believed it.

Rewind to 1999

I was traveling on Northwest that fateful weekend, and wrote about my experience at length in a letter to Northwest that we published on The Independent Traveler, and that subsequently was heavily forwarded, printed and shared among Internet-savvy travelers.

Granted, the worst of Northworst’s (as the airline was dubbed) problems were caused by having a major hub in the middle of a major storm — but if you read my letter, you’ll find that my problems started days before the first snowflake hit the ground. The real problem was much more institutional arrogance that had riddled the airlines from the top brass to the check-in counter — and not only at Northwest. It soon became evident that my experience was just an amplified, drawn-out version of what many travelers were experiencing at the airport and in the air on an almost daily or even hourly basis; the storm and the media fallout just brought everything to a head.

In the aftermath, the airlines issued denials, made excuses and generally CYA’d; meanwhile, consumer advocates railed, consumers told and retold their own tales of woe online and on television, and ultimately legislators started to call for heads to roll, if only to stop their phones from ringing.

With public opinion almost unanimously lined up against them, and the specter of actual legislation casting visible shadows, the airlines quickly went officially into mea culpa mode and produced the supposedly self-governing Customer Service Initiative, a document of cheery promises and pledges that each airline was obliged to draw up and post prominently on its Web site.

As almost every industry pundit and expert noted at the time, the initiatives were in fact little more than a PR-savvy repackaging of the existing airline Contract of Carriage, a document that does its level best to absolve the issuer of responsibility. Sure, it was in nice sugary language, and the airlines ate a bit of crow for effect, but the new initiatives had almost no teeth. The whole thing amounted to Congress forcing the airlines to take a pledge to do better, and when the TV cameras went away, it was business as usual for the airlines, with a few big checks cut to lobbyists and public relations firms. Whew.

Cut to 2007: Like It’s 1999

As any mother of a two-year-old could predict, if you don’t mean it when you say “no,” they’ll do it again — and of course they did. Just before this past New Year’s Eve, American Airlines stranded passengers on a tarmac for eight hours in Austin, Texas.

The treatment of the passengers was as predictably heartless this time as well: five hours into the eight-hour ordeal, an elderly woman asked for some food. A flight attendant told her there were a few snack boxes still available and charged her $4. Whoever was calling the shots relented only after it became obvious that a diabetic patient onboard was in danger, and when the passengers were finally released, no assistance awaited them at the terminal or on airline phone banks — they were more abandoned than released.

Then, on Valentine’s Day, a winter ice storm grounded dozens of JetBlue planes at JFK, with many passengers stuck onboard for up to 11 hours. The airline’s schedules were disrupted by the storm and it was forced to cancel nearly a quarter of its flights over the subsequent President’s Day weekend, leaving thousands of passengers stranded — and leaving JetBlue in a public relations nightmare.

Enter The Coalition for Airline Passenger’s Bill of Rights

A one-woman juggernaut named Kate Hanni was on the American Airlines flight that was grounded in December, and has taken her story all the way to Congress. Hanni formed the Coalition for Airline Passenger’s Bill of Rights, which is calling for a passenger bill of rights to be written into law.

The Coalition’s proposed Bill of Rights reads thusly:

All American air carriers shall abide by the following standards to ensure the safety, security and comfort of their passengers:

  • Establish procedures to respond to all passenger complaints within 24 hours and with appropriate resolution within two weeks.
  • Notify passengers within 10 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 three 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 30 minutes or more, at least 40 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 percent of ticket price.
  • The formal implementation of a Passenger Review Committee, made up of non-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 flier 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 codeshare partners including international partners.

Is this a fair response to years of shoddy treatment of the flying public? You bet it is. And is it better than what we have now? Absolutely. The current Customer Service Initiative mostly says “we’ll try our best, but we don’t really promise anything.” It contains nothing whatsoever setting benchmarks, meeting deadlines, setting compensation amounts, requiring notifications, or just about anything hard and fast. It’s all squish and slip.

For example, read American’s policies regarding “Essential Customer Needs During Extraordinary Delays”; it’s clear that these promises rang extremely hollow in late December 2006. The biggest change in the new bill of rights is that these “policies” will become law. It will no longer be enough to say “it’s not our policy to starve our passengers on the tarmac” and have the issue just go away.

Is it unreasonable to ask this of the airlines? I don’t think so, as, for the most part, the proposed bill simply holds the airlines to their own policies.

Editor’s Note: JetBlue has just voluntarily released its own Customer Bill of Rights, promising that passengers will never be stuck on a plane longer than five hours and that any passengers whose departures are delayed more than one hour will be compensated with vouchers for future travel.

There are undoubtedly a lot of nice people in the airline business, but their goodwill will always eventually be trumped — or even stubbed out — by the institutional indifference (some would say arrogance) of the airline industry. For some time now it has been the airlines’ world up there, and we just live in it. But remember that the airspace over our country, and the FAA that governs it, are owned and paid for by we the people.

This is no abstract notion. We pay for it every time we buy an airline ticket laden with taxes; we pay for it every time we bail out mismanaged airlines with public money. The airlines know they will be bailed out because air travel is essential to the business of America, but that status comes with responsibility too — responsibility that the airlines mostly would rather not shoulder. It’s time that, at least when it comes to routine and humane treatment of customers, the airlines understand it is our world they fly in — and if it takes laws to do this, so be it. They certainly have not been able to police themselves.

The airlines have powerful, well-placed and savvy lobbyists, and don’t scrimp on campaign contributions; it is interesting that American is the biggest donor of all. In 2005, the industry spent over $60 million on the books in lobbying costs in the air transport sector.

But despite the power the airlines wield in Washington, it almost seems that this time out our elected officials are willing to do something about the problem. In fact, I would say they will be forced to do something about it — repeating the weak wrist slap they doled out in 1999 likely isn’t going to cut it this time, given that Hanni and her cohorts have appeared on Fox, CNN, C-SPAN and all three major networks, and in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal as well as any number of other newspapers nationwide.

Typically the media would tire of a story like this and it would eventually go away, but Hanni is nothing if not persistent — and her Congressional representative, California Democrat Mike Thompson, has taken up the cause. As the issue made its way to Capitol Hill this week, the battle lines were drawn, with some unlikely allies and opponents.

How and whether a bill might make it into law is not quite certain at present. Airline lobbyists and organizations are lining up against it — including, somewhat against type, the Business Travel Coalition (lots of coalitions in this game), whose members you might think had seen some ugly flights.

The best chance for the bill appears to be as an addendum to the FAA budget, which the airlines find to be quite nice, thank you; if a bill of rights does ride into law with the budget, they are certain to try to gnaw away at the language until we have just another toothless Customer Service Initiative, this time written into law but no less effective.

What You Can Do

To help stave off these efforts, you might start with signing David Rowell’s Petition for the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights. Next, according to polls, the general public is overwhelmingly in favor of a Bill of Rights; a call or letter to your representatives in Congress will help register your opinion when they’re called on to face down lobbyists and actually pass a bill of consequence.

As one who has been through one of these debacles, albeit not while imprisoned on a tarmac — though I have done my time there too — I understand well how Hanni’s righteous anger built up over eight terrible hours in Austin to the extent that she is willing to wage a crusade to save others the experience. Let’s give the public air space back to the public that flies — and owns — the friendly skies. That would really be something special in the air.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in February 2007.

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