Image: Valentine's Day storm
Richard Drew  /  AP file
JetBlue passengers sleep and work on computers as they wait for flights at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. A snow and ice storm back in February resulted in more than 1,000 flight cancelations and headaches for hordes of travelers.
updated 4/20/2007 5:16:22 PM ET 2007-04-20T21:16:22

The chief executive of JetBlue Airways Corp. apologized again Friday for his airline’s shoddy performance during a Valentine’s Day storm.

“As long as I’m head of this company, it will never happen again,” JetBlue CEO David Neeleman testified at a House subcommittee hearing.

Neeleman also argued against proposals to restrict how long delayed airplanes can wait on airport tarmacs before passengers have the right to deplane. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said new legislation is likely as he expressed frustration with what he says is inadequate regulatory oversight of commercial airlines.

“Baloney!” Oberstar exclaimed, while paging through a printed copy of a Transportation Department official’s testimony. Kate Hanni, a California real estate agent and founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, testified of a nightmarish eight hours stranded aboard an American Airlines plane last year at an airport in Austin, Texas. Hanni called for a new law to “hold the airlines accountable.”

JetBlue CEO David Neeleman testified that limiting how long planes carrying passengers can wait for takeoffs would be tough to implement at busy airports, where dozens of planes can be queued on the tarmac. Such a rule would be unfair to customers who are willing to wait for takeoff rather than return to the airport gate.

Consumer and lawmaker outrage followed JetBlue’s handling of a winter storm on Feb. 14, when the airline canceled more than 1,000 flights, affecting at least 100,000 passengers. Some customers were stuck inside aircraft for up to 10 hours at New York’s John K. Kennedy International Airport.

JetBlue quickly rolled out a customer bill of rights after the storm, offering vouchers to delayed customers. In March, the company hired Russ Chew, a former top Federal Aviation Administration official and former executive at AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, as chief operating officer.

Yet air passenger rights are still on lawmakers’ minds. In February, Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Olympia Snowe, R.-Me., introduced a bill that would require airlines to let passengers on delayed flights deplane after three hours.

Improved passenger protections could be added to a Federal Aviation Administration’s funding bill later this year, said Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), chair of the subcommittee.

“Unless the industry addresses this and addresses this now, there’s going to be congressional action,” said Costello. “There’s no question about it.”

James May, president of the Air Transport Association -- the industry’s trade group, said government mandates would not give airlines enough flexibility and could worsen weather- related delays.

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“I don’t think ... Congress can legislate good weather or the best way to respond to bad weather because every situation is, in fact, unique,” May said.

A report from the Transportation Department’s inspector general, released at the hearing, called on the government to improve oversight of airline customer protections.

Oberstar was unmoved.

“The airlines have to clean up their act,” Oberstar said. “We’re going to have some tougher enforcement. We’re going to have tougher fines, tougher penalties ... The air carriers have got to do their job of serving the public and that means more than what they’re doing now.”

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