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Getting angry only goes so far

Bumps, delays and overbookings are irking travelers and renewing talks of an airline passengers' bill of rights.
Bumps, delays and overbookings are irking travelers and renewing talks of an airline passengers' bill of rights.Ed Betz / AP file

Where’s Howard Beale when you need him?

Beale, you may remember, was the raving TV anchorman played by Peter Finch in “Network,” the Academy Award-winning movie about the news business. Fired due to low ratings, he launches into an on-air tirade about corporate malfeasance and the abuse of the public trust.

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” he rages at one point, galvanizing the nation and laying the groundwork for a consumer revolt that, alas, fizzles before it can fly.

Sounds a bit like what’s going on in air travel these days.

A timely idea?
Fliers are mad as hell, and rightfully so. By almost any measure — “bumps,” mishandled baggage, on-time performance — 2006 was an abysmal year for air travelers. And if last week’s debacle, in which JetBlue passengers were trapped on grounded jets for up to 11 hours, is any indication, 2007 isn’t looking much better.

Hence the renewed clamor for an , a proposed framework for seeking redress when things go awry. Starting with a grass-roots effort born onboard grounded American Airlines flights in Austin last December, the call to hold the airlines accountable is now being heard from the heights of the blogosphere to the halls of Congress. The general consensus: It’s an idea whose time has come.

Actually, it’s come back. Since 1999, at least two similar proposals have been put forth — one in the United States, one in Europe — neither of which has turned out quite as planned. Call me cynical (you’d be right) or a tool of the airline industry (you’d be wrong), but I’m not optimistic about the current effort, either. It may very well be an idea whose time has come, but I’m guessing it may also come and go.

The past as prologue?
As longtime fliers know, a similar call went out after Northwest Airlines stranded passengers on planes in Detroit in January 1999. After intense lobbying from the airlines, however, that effort was reduced to a set of self-governing guidelines that was more lip service than customer service.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a follow-up report on the so-called Airline Customer Service Commitment just last November. From the airlines’ auditing of their customer service plans (weak) to the government’s efforts at enforcement (almost non-existent), the findings were every bit as depressing as you’d expect.

Then there’s the European experience. Two years ago this month, the EU implemented a new directive requiring airlines to reimburse passengers when they’re bumped or their flights are delayed. Depending on the length of the flight, the required compensation ranges from 250 to 600 euros ($329–$788). That, one would think, would be a strong incentive to get passengers where they want to go in a timely manner.

Instead, European news reports suggest the airlines are simply coming up with creative ways to deny claims, leaving passengers little choice but to seek restitution in court. An updated report on the directive’s effectiveness is expected in March, but it’s already clear that there have been problems with its implementation and enforcement.

Who decides?
And there’s the rub. Yes, customer service in the airline industry has gotten worse. Yes, delays and baggage mishaps have hit historic levels. And yes, no one should ever be trapped on a grounded plane for hours on end. But in the end, you can’t run a compliance program on righteous rage, and the proposed Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights raises as many questions as it answers.

Can any industry that handles 600 million customers per year “respond to all passenger complaints within 24 hours”? I doubt it. Who determined that “postponements of over 12 hours” warrant refunds of “150 percent of ticket price”? Why not 100 or 200 percent? And how will the proposed Passenger Review Committee be funded? By the airlines? The government? Either way, I’m afraid the money will ultimately come out of our pockets in the form of higher fares and added fees.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that the airlines have done a good job or that a passenger bill of rights is a bad idea. I’m just saying that it’s going to take a lot more than angry fliers standing up and shouting, “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore!” Even recently proposed — and much needed — legislation ensuring that stranded passengers have adequate access to food, water and sanitary facilities is a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem.

The system is stressed to the breaking point. Take your pick of causes — an overloaded air-traffic-control system, airline mismanagement or, admit it, our fondness for unsustainably low fares — but it’s going to take more than a bill of rights to restore common sense in the passenger cabin. In the meantime, the next debacle is just a snowstorm away.