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Wash.: State lawmakers consider bill of rights for airline passengers

Kate Hanni is crusading for airline passenger rights, using her own personal experience on a grounded flight last year to encourage states to follow New York's lead.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Kate Hanni is crusading for airline passenger rights, using her own personal experience on a grounded flight last year to encourage states to follow New York's lead.

Hanni, the founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, made headlines last year after her flight from San Francisco to Alabama was diverted to Austin, Texas, and then sat idle for more than nine hours on the tarmac.

On Tuesday, she told lawmakers on the state Senate Consumer Protection and Housing committee her story of being stuck inside a smelly plane as food ran out and toilets overflowed.

New York last year became the first state to pass a law requiring airlines to provide food, water, clean toilets and fresh air to passengers stuck on the ground for three hours or more.

"It's about the four-hour mark that you start to lose it," Hanni told lawmakers.

Now six states _ including Washington _ have introduced similar bills based on New York's law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Those states include Indiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Michigan. A resolution introduced in Missouri calls on Congress to act. Hanni said lawmakers from California and Florida are also interested.

The new law was challenged by the industry in court last December, but was upheld. An appeal filed by the industry will be heard in March.

Hanni, of Napa, Calif., testified in New York and has plans to talk to lawmakers in Rhode Island, California and elsewhere about her ordeal.

Hanni's organization is calling on government _ both state and federal _ to pass measures regulating the way passengers are treated inside planes idle on airport tarmacs. The organization, she said, has more than 21,000 members, including around 2,600 in Washington state.

Last year, bills introduced in Congress stalled.

"I felt this is a way we can prod Congress into action," said Washington state Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle. "It takes a few states to step out on the front and lead the parade."

Jacobsen's bill is tougher than the law passed in New York. Along with mandating the water and food service, a clause says airlines would have to refund 150 percent of a ticket price to passengers whose flights are delayed for more than 12 hours. It also calls for airlines to publish a list on their Web sites of all flights delayed more than 30 minutes.

The airline industry, meanwhile, plans to oppose every such bill proposed at the state level, using the argument that it's the federal government's business to regulate air travel.

"You cannot have a hodgepodge of regulation state by state, and expect a carrier to be able to comply on a state by state basis," said David A. Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association of America (ATA). Among the trade group's members include Delta Air Lines Inc., United Airlines, a subsidiary of UAL Corp. and Northwest Airlines Corp.

If the federal measure advances, Castelveter said the ATA will oppose the government regulating customer service.

Steve Jarvis, Alaska Airlines vice president of marketing, sales and customer experience, testified against the Washington bill on Tuesday, echoing the ATA's concern about different states having a "patchwork quilt" of laws. He said the diversion of money to comply with new rules might damage the airline's competitiveness.

Still, even in states that don't have major airports, lawmakers are considering a passengers' bill of rights.

"What we've found is that airports are so interconnected that the protection is necessary even if you're not dealing with the busiest airports," said New York Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, who sponsored the bill that was passed in that state.