In a case that could affect passengers delayed on planes at airports nationwide, an industry trade group is challenging New York's law requiring airlines to provide food, water, clean toilets and fresh air to passengers stuck on the ground for more than three hours.
New York lawmakers passed the "airline passenger bill of rights" — the first law of its kind in the nation — after a series of delays last winter at John F. Kennedy International Airport that left some passengers stranded for more than 10 hours with no food or water, overflowing toilets and no air conditioning.
Industry lawyers told a federal judge Tuesday that their challenge isn't about not wanting to provide for delayed passengers.
"The only question in this case is whether the state of New York can tell airlines what to provide," said Robert Span, an attorney for the Air Transport Association.
The industry group is trying to stop the law from taking effect on Jan. 1, arguing that only the federal government can regulate airline services.
State legislators and passenger rights advocates said they pushed for the law because federal regulators have long failed to address what they say has become a chronic problem, particularly at New York airports.
"I would love for Washington to step forward, set a standard for the whole country and take care of business once and for all," said Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who sponsored the legislation in the state Assembly. "They didn't do it. We had to step forward as the state which is dealing with the greatest delays in the country."
A recent federal report showed that about 24 percent of flights nationally arrived late in the first 10 months of the year, which was the industry's second-worst performance record since comparable data began being collected in 1995.
JFK had the third-worst on-time arrival record of any major U.S. airport through October, behind the New York area's other two major airports, LaGuardia and Newark, according to the report.
In a court hearing Tuesday, airline industry association lawyers said they're worried that if New York's law is upheld, other states will follow with their own laws, which would result in a confusing patchwork of state regulations.
Paul Hudson, an attorney with the nonprofit Aviation Consumer Action Project who appeared in court alongside a lawyer from the state attorney general's office, said other states likely would pass similar laws.
"Other states will copy it with some slight variations — but nothing is going to be ridiculous," he said after the hearing.
If enough states pass airline passenger rights laws, the federal government would probably create its own version, which would provide the uniform set of rules the airlines want, Hudson said.
In response to questions from U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Kahn, the Air Transport Association's Span acknowledged that there are currently no federal rules governing services airlines provide during ground delays. He said the federal Transportation Department is considering establishing some.
After the hearing, Span said many airlines — including JetBlue, whose delays after grounding more than a thousand flights during a Valentine's Day ice storm last year were the main impetus behind New York's law — have established their own policies to provide better service to delayed passengers.
Charles Fuschillo Jr., a Long Island Republican who sponsored the legislation in the state Senate, said the law passed only after the airlines proved that they weren't doing any better and were unresponsive to state lawmakers' concerns.
"The airline industry said, 'We can do this,' but I made it very clear to them that they had failed to provide consumers with basic necessities," Fuschillo said.
The airline industry has asked Kahn for a summary judgment in the case — meaning he would decide based on legal arguments without a jury trial — and to block the law from taking effect on Jan. 1.
The judge said he plans to make a decision within a week.