It's too soon to know for sure - re: my post early this week - whether an air passengers' bill of rights in the United States is is an idea whose time has come. However, developments over the past two days suggest that support for basic reform in air travel is gaining traction inside the American business community, the U.S. Congress and beyond.
This build in momentum has has been given a big push by the recent hold overnight of an ExpressJet regional service operated for Continental Airlines at an airport in Rochester, Minn. Dozens of passengers sat for some six hours without adequate water, food or restrooms, the latest of a string of such highly publicized incidents.
On Thursday, Aug. 13, the National Business Travel Association endorsed a three-hour time limit on the length of time airlines can hold passengers on an airplane while it's away from an airport terminal and stranded on the tarmac. This is a key provision of a U.S. Senate bill called the Federal Aviation Administration Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act (S1451), introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).
The NBTA additionally backs provisions of the bill that would require airlines to provide passengers with food, potable water, comfortable cabin temperatures and ventilization and working restrooms while a plane is on the ground. Airports and Airlines would be required to draw up contingency plans, reviewed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and be subject to fines if they didn't write those plans. The bill would also create a consumer hotline.
NBTA President and CEO Keven Maquire said in a statement "For years, the business travel industry believed the airlines and the federal government would work together to fix the problems that led to excessive tarmac delays, but enough is enough. When we've got travelers stuck on planes sitting on the tarmac overnight, it's clear the problem has spun out of control, and legislation is the best solution.''
Airlines believe legislation restricts their ability to operate flexibly. They push back hard against such proposals. But the European Union has already instituted its own version of an air passengers' bill of rights, and now, support is building in the United States.
Also on Thursday, Aug. 13, flyersrights.org (formerly the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights) and the Business Travel Coalition, a national association of corporate travel planners, joined forces to start a new group designed to serve as a global advocate of passengers' rights. The group is called airpassengeradvocacy.travel. It will soon hold what organizers term a "stakeholder hearing'' of industry leaders to air their ideas for reforming air travel; that meeting is planned for Sept. 22, in Washington, D.C., with former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall - credited as the inventor of frequent flyer miles, BTW - as keynote speaker.
"I think there is a need to put together a group that can work across borders on these issues and help one another, particularly because in recent years, these issues have really become global in nature,'' said Kevin Mitchell, who heads the BTC, in Aviation Daily. Mitchell divides his time between Philadelphia and the EU capital, Brussels.
It's good to see reformers are thinking globally, as aviation is a quintessentially global business. Whether new laws will be enacted - and whether they'll be tough, fair and consistently enforced - will go a long way toward deciding if this is travel change we can believe in.