Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Passengers' Bill of Rights: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

How would you like to be kept pent-up in a commercial jetliner for, say, six, eight, even 12 hours, along with crying babies, overflowing toilets, no food, little water and a general feeling of frustration and claustrophia?

Thought so. Me neither. And yet, thousands of airline passengers have had just that experience - due to mechancial difficulites with planes, bad weather, very long back-up queues for take-off and so on - at airports across the United States in recent years.

Is this the year an airline passengers' bill of rights - hanging in the air, lo, this past decade or so, as an idea - comes into being? There's no way to know for sure, but continuing and well-publicized incidents like the all-night stranding on a Minnesota tarmac of a cramped regional jet operated under Continental Airlines increases the possibility that a passengers' bill of rights is an idea whose time has come.

The key provision of pending federal legislation in the House (HR 624) and Senate (S.213)
is a rule that would allow passengers held on a stationary jetliner for more than three hours to leave the plane - apparently by moveable stairs rolled out on the airport tarmac - provided the captain thinks it is safe and the plane isn't slated for take-off within the next 30 minutes.

Similar bills have been proposed before, only to die in Congress, as leading U.S. carriers said they could lessen the number of such incidents on their own. To allow intrusive federal law, they said, would hamstring airline operations and perhaps even result in more delays. Individual airlines and the industry group the Air Transport Association (www.airlines.org) are firmly against it.

Even large stakeholders in the U.S. air transporation system, such as the Business Travel Coalition, which represents major corporate travel planners, are uncertain whether a 'bill of rights' would be a good thing or a bad thing. Today, Kevin Mitchell, the respected head of the BTC, put out a call to members and industry experts for ideas about should be done.

On the other side are passengers' advocates such as the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights (www.flyers rights.org), many of whose members have been kept stranded, and steaming, for hours, on the tarmac - or who have other complaints against the airlines.

Me, I dunno. I have some sympathy for the airlines, as they have to work in close concert with busy airports, they've taken a lot of shots lately from the global recession, swine flu fears and volatile fuel prices. Working with the public isn't always a piece of cake, either. But the public is the only reason airlines are in business, and when the inevitable uptick in air travel returns someday, more-congested airports could only make this hard-to-take situation worse.

In the meantime, maybe taking the time-honored path of letting your Senator or Congressperson know what you think - politely, constructively, not like the shoutfest town meetings Americans are seeing on the critical issue of health reform - is a way to move forward.

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