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Getting serious about passenger rights

New York has enacted a ground-breaking "Passenger Bill of Rights," a law that requires airlines to provide food, water, clean toilets and fresh air to airplane passengers stuck on the ground for more than three hours. Sounds like basic human rights, doesn't it? James Wysong weighs in with some further suggestions.
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Year after year, we hear stories of airplane passengers being stranded on the runway for hours and hours on end. Each time, passengers threaten to sue, and the airline apologizes — promising it will never happen again.

Well, this year the state of New York took steps to ensure that airlines keep their word, enacting a "Passenger Bill of Rights" that requires airlines to provide food, water, clean toilets and fresh air to passengers stuck on the ground for more than three hours. The legislation took effect January 1 for all airports in New York.

Why stop with New York? While Kennedy and La Guardia airports are apparently the biggest offenders, I know of many other places where such legislation is needed just as much. Chicago, Atlanta, and Dallas-Fort Worth, just to name a few. But the prospects for expanding the protections look dim because — surprise! — it turns out the airlines are opposed. They claim such passenger protections are financially unsound. Wait, weren't they the ones vowing never to let it happen again? Wasn't it the airlines who suggested a passenger bill of rights in the first place?

While the airlines may be crying foul, the employees are not. As a flight attendant, I can say we don't like runway delays any more than you do. I feel there should be published limits for all contingencies, so everyone on board knows they won't still be stuck on the airplane 10 hours later wading around in their own sewage. It's hard to believe that an airline would disregard basic human rights, yet it happens too often.

One of the most publicized incidents occurred in February 2007, when JetBlue held passengers hostage for more than 10 hours on one of its planes in New York. A month later, a Royal Air Maroc flight from JFK to Casablanca kept its passengers on board for a record 16.5 hours before finally canceling the flight. Perhaps the most significant stranding, however, occurred at Austin International Airport on December 29, 2006, when several American Airlines planes sat at the gate or on the runway for up to 9 hours. In the wake of that event, several hundred passengers formed the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, which supports legislation like that enacted earlier this year in New York.

Passenger protections are important, but before we get all giddy with excitement, let's take a look at some possible negative consequences:

1. Airline managers are crafty and are sure to have their legal teams pick apart any suggested provision, looking for loopholes. Believe me, they have put so many loopholes in my contract that they can get away with almost anything — and often do.

2. The costs of implementing any bill of rights will undoubtedly be passed on to the traveling public. Who knows, the airlines could introduce a new "Passenger Bill of Rights tax."

3. After waiting in line for hours, your plane could be No. 1 for take-off but have to return to the gate because the specified runway time has run out.

4. Instead of being severely delayed, your flight could be canceled, instead.

5. The airlines will have a new scapegoat: "Due to the requirements of the new Passenger Bill of Rights, we will not be able to operate this flight ... "

New York's new law contains provisions for food, water, basic lavatory access and runway time. While all of these provisions are important, we need more. Why not create an "Airline Industry Bill of Rights" that everyone could benefit from?

Here are some of my suggestions:

1. Report cards. Airlines that consistently cancel flights or experience delays more than 60 percent of the time on a given route should lose that route and be required to rebid for it — along with the competition.

2. Honesty. Airlines should be required to give the true reason for any delay, cancellation or mechanical problem. Don't blame it on the weather, overworked computers and labor unions — unless they are, in fact, responsible. I, for one, would love to hear a gate announcement admitting that the flight is being canceled because management failed to hire enough pilots to fly the airplanes.

3. Pension protection. If workers' pensions are eliminated due to financial hardship, then executives' retirement packages should be eliminated also. I think that is only just, don't you?

4. Medical cancellations. Say you get a serious case of the flu the night before a flight. Under current rules you really can't stay home with some chicken soup. No, your ticket is nonrefundable, so you're forced to fly (and infect everyone else around you). There should be some provision that allows up to a 75 percent refund upon submission of a doctor's note.

5. Strike-out. The government should butt out of labor negotiations. The airlines are now counting on the president to intervene any time a strike is threatened. I say, make the bargaining field level. The employees don't want their airline to implode any more than management does. Let them work it out among themselves.

6. Cancellation rule. If a passenger is the victim of two or more cancellations, and the airline can't get him to his destination, it should be the duty of the airline to find alternate means of transportation, even if it is on another airline — regardless of price. And the passenger should be able to call around to see if another flight is available if he senses that the airline isn't trying hard enough.

7. Salary caps. Put a salary cap on executive pay. No CEO or other manager can make more than two or three times what the highest front-line worker is paid. That seems fair.

What are your suggestions? All serious and whimsical responses welcome. Just send me an e-mail.

James Wysong is a veteran flight attendant who has worked with two major international carriers. James recently released a new book, For more information about James, visit or send him an .