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Airline passengers’ bill(s) of rights take off

Food, water and working restrooms — when you’re stuck on a grounded airplane, is that really so much to ask? Not according to at least one U.S. District Court judge, several consumer advocates and a rapidly growing roster of state legislators across the country.

Food, water and working restrooms — when you’re stuck on a grounded airplane, is that really so much to ask? Not according to at least one U.S. District Court judge, several consumer advocates and a rapidly growing roster of state legislators across the country.

In fact, depending on where you live, such “amenities” may not be just a reasonable request, but rather, the law. If recent developments are any indication, the airline passengers’ bill of rights is on the verge of going viral.

A year in the making
The latest call for a bill of rights for fliers was born on December 29, 2006, when passengers on several American Airlines planes found themselves stuck on the tarmac in Austin, Texas. At least one flight, 1348 from San Francisco, sat on the ground for more than eight hours, stranding passengers without food, water or usable bathrooms.

Six weeks later, the issue flared up again as stormy weather wreaked havoc on JetBlue’s operations in the Northeast. Amid hundreds of delayed and canceled flights, passengers on nine planes at JFK found themselves stranded for up to six hours.

It was in response to such incidents that Kate Hanni, a real estate broker who was on AA Flight 1348, and others formed the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights (CAPBOR). Despite assurances from the airlines that they’d police themselves, says Hanni, “it’s a lost cause that they’ll keep their word.”

Hence, the clamor for a government-backed Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights. (Full disclosure: When CAPBOR’s original list was announced, I was among those who questioned its value.) Currently, several proposals are being considered by Congress and the Department of Transportation (DOT), although all face an uphill battle against time, political gridlock and industry pressure.

As it turns out, today (January 22) represents the final day in DOT’s comment period regarding rules it’s considering on the subject of passengers’ rights. (For more information, go to and enter “DOT-OST-2007-0022” in the Search window.)

But don’t worry if you miss the deadline. The current call for comments is what’s known as an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. If DOT decides to proceed, it will be followed by a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, another comment period and, someday, maybe, a final rule.

The wheels of justice grind slowly, indeed.

New York State steps up
Unless, that is, you’re in New York, which passed its own Passenger Bill of Rights last year. After surviving a court challenge from the Air Transport Association (ATA), an industry trade group, last month, the bill became law on January 1.

Among its provisions, the law requires that whenever passengers are delayed on board a plane for more than three hours prior to takeoff, the airline must provide:

  • Electric generation service and temporary power for fresh air and lights
  • Waste removal service in order to service the holding tanks for on-board restrooms, and ...
  • Adequate food, drinking water and other refreshments

Note, though, that the law is mum on several related issues, including delays upon landing, allowing passengers to disembark from stuck planes or compensating them for the inconvenience. It does, however, allow the state to fine airlines up to $1,000 per passenger for non-compliance.

The airlines, of course, remain opposed to the law, arguing, among other things, that commercial aviation is best regulated by the federal government, rather than a patchwork quilt of local laws and policies. That’s a valid point, but given the outcome of the New York court case and the inertia in the nation’s capital, what happened in Albany may be just the beginning.

Coming soon to an airport near you?
In fact, the New York law is already spawning a litter of similar proposals in other states. “I introduced a bill last week,” says Rhode Island State Senator Leonidas “Lou” Raptakis, “and 31 of 38 senators signed on.” Furthermore, he says, “I’ve been talking to colleagues in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Minnesota …”

Similar efforts are also underway in Arizona and California, among others. Most are modeled after the New York law and a model passengers’ bill of rights recently produced by CAPBOR (in part to forestall subsequent court challenges). If they pass, the patchwork quilt of regulations that ATA and other industry players hoped to avoid may very well become a blanket policy of consumer protection.

That’s because the prospect of dozens of individual state laws may actually prompt the federal government to take meaningful action. At this point, says Hanni, the New York law is far tougher than anything the federal government is considering, but with enough pressure, she believes that could change. “We’re hoping Congress will step up and pass minimum standards for emplanement and essential needs.”

Ultimately, says California Assemblyman Mark Leno (who recently announced plans to introduce legislation in his state), “We need federal legislation on this issue. We’ve all been stuck on a plane and thought, ‘There oughta be a law.’”