Image: JetBlue
Rick Maiman  /  AP file
A Valentine's Day meltdown by JetBlue, plus long runway delays by Continental, Delta, United and USAirways, prompted Kate Hanni, an advocate for a passenger bill of rights, to declare, “Prisoners of war have more rights than passengers on an airliner.”
By Charles Leocha Travel columnist
Special to msnbc.com
updated 10/3/2007 12:54:18 PM ET 2007-10-03T16:54:18
OPINION

A brand new federal report shows nearly 30 percent of flights were delayed in August — more bad news following last week's report released by the Department of Transportation (DOT) inspector general on airline tarmac delays that occurred this past winter and President Bush instructing his transportation secretary to figure out a way to reduce overall air transportation system delays.

We’ve been stuck on this runway before.

Back in 1999, the poster event was a Northwest flight that was stranded in snowy Detroit for eight hours. Congress, President Clinton and Vice President Gore huffed and puffed and threatened to force better customer service, but in the end, our executives and lawmakers only whimpered and allowed the airlines to establish voluntary customer service plans.

Now, eight years later, here we go again. In December, American Airlines stranded 4,600 passengers for three hours or more. Among them was Kate Hanni who decided enough was enough and started the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights. In February, passengers were incited yet again when JetBlue had their infamous meltdown during a Valentines Day snowstorm. These and other long runway delays by Continental, Delta, United and USAirways pushed Hanni to declare, “Prisoners of war have more rights than passengers on an airliner.”

Passengers themselves are up in arms. Thousands have joined Hanni’s coalition, and there have even been reports of passenger uprisings on stranded airplanes. It’s a national cry of, “We’re not going to take this any more.”

President Bush recently acknowledged the public’s increasing discontent, saying, “There’s a lot of anger amongst our citizens about the fact that, you know, they’re just not being treated right.”

So far, Congress and the federal bureaucracy, again, are beating their breasts, and opting, it seems, to do nothing. But with President Bush finally taking personal action with his transportation secretary, the wheels of the DOT and FAA should begin moving with more dispatch.

Dream a little dream
The dream of airlines “working together” to solve these problems is just that, a dream. In fact, these airlines are in economic combat with each other and will not volunteer anything that helps the other guy. To top it all off, the FAA and anti-trust lawyers aren’t even allowing the airline executives to gather without government supervision.

The bottom line? We need airline passenger rights legislation with teeth. We need our government to take a stand regarding over-scheduling of our busiest airports. We need Federal regulators to define acceptable tarmac and customer service delays and regulate rather than stand aside and produce studies. We need the FAA to allow the airlines to try to figure their way out of this current morass.

Passenger-rights legislation is finally working its way through Congress, and may provide a roadmap to breaking the customer-service and tarmac-delay roadblock. The recently passed House legislation is a start. Setting a timeframe of three hours of tarmac delay before the airlines have to react doesn’t seem too draconian and it may insure that supplies of food and procedures to empty overloaded toilets are in place, or that, at least, passengers can return to the terminal. Instructing the FAA to allow planes stuck on the tarmac during extended weather delays to return to the terminal without giving up their place in line gives airlines much more flexibility.

This time, eight years after the last passenger rights crisis, the stakes are higher. Customer service complaints are at record levels and airline delays are worse than ever — averaging almost one hour. All of the voluntary airline customer-service gruel we have been fed over past years has resulted in a system worse than ever before.

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Airlines are already complaining that if Congress passes a law about passenger rights, it will only make matters worse. Still my beating heart! With the airlines’ voluntary solutions in place, passenger service has plunged and tarmac delays are worse than ever.

JetBlue, after their Valentine’s Day fiasco, issued a Customer Bill of Rights that they self-police. The airline has been religious in adhering to what they promise as far as I have heard. American Airlines has had a policy for “Extraordinary Delays” that isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Other airlines have rules about tarmac delays that seem to be rarely enforced. The DOT report noted that five airlines have no time limits set, even on paper, for tarmac delays.

Time for change
It is time to try another approach.

The airlines didn’t change their stripes in 1999 and they won’t change today unless Congress and the DOT provide written guidelines and legal incentives. If Congress, the DOT and the FAA do not set and enforce standards, nothing will change. A federal law will at least clear the air, standardize regulations and allow passengers to know the rules of travel.

With more planes crowding the skies and consistently increasing delays, a passenger bill of rights is a start. It is an incentive to start straightening out the complex air system mess that has been created by the airlines with their insistence on scheduling more flights than some major airports can handle — even with perfect weather conditions — and the FAA with its obsolete air-traffic control systems and looming personnel shortages.

If our government will not take basic action to at least protect passenger rights when airline operations fail, the airlines will continue treating air travelers like pieces of walking cargo. Let’s face it: The air transportation infrastructure with all of its facets will not be fixed, even by the most optimistic estimates, for another decade.

Our government has only intruded twice into the realm of customer service — dealing with overbooking and the resulting bumping of passengers with reserved seats and with compensation for lost luggage. In both cases it created a workable system that provides a clear path for redress when passengers were denied boarding and compensation when luggage was lost.

Now, is time for a passenger bill of rights that limits time spent waiting on the tarmac, provides passengers with the current lowest fare for every route and clearly informs passengers of chronically late flights. The bureaucracies and air transportation industry hasn’t managed to maintain the infrastructure or maintain reasonable scheduling. While they come to grips with their problems it is only fair that our country’s citizens get some kind of legislated protection from what even President Bush terms “egregious behavior.”

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