Monday, October 5, 2009

Two Blasts from the Past

Not too long ago, two ideas that have been kicking around in the United States for years - an airline passengers' bill of rights and a registered traveler program - were all but given up for dead. Now, both ideas have resurfaced, with a passengers' bill of rights gaining traction and some form of RT program getting another look.

A passenger bill of rights has been batted around since at least 1999, when numerous flight delays and cancellations raised the ire of travelers and attracted the attention of the U.S. Congress. Airlines vowed to fix the problems on their own. But they haven't. Six hundred thirteen flights were trapped on the tarmac for three hours or more during the first six months of 2009, according to Department of Transportation statistics. About 100,000 travelers a year are stranded on the tarmac, where they can be left without adequate food, water or ventilation.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Olympia Snow (R-Maine) are sponsoring passengers' rights legislation written into the Senate bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration. Boxer last month told a private stakeholders' meeting sponsored by the Business Travel Coalition and that federal regulation is all but certain. The Boxer-Snowe bill would allow passengers held on the tarmac to deplane after three hours so long as the captain thought it was safe.

The question underlying this idea - and it would have to be harmonized with a similar bill from the House of Representatives - is whether it would actually work. Airlines hate the idea of being told how to run their operations and warn of dire unintended consequences. We can say this is self-serving, but some academic observers of the travel industry lend a degree of support to the carriers, saying that a three-hour rule would only affect a small number of delayed flights.

The airlines, for their part, argue that delayed flights are statistically insignificant anyway. But this is tone-deaf when it comes to customer relations. I was once held on a plane on the tarmac for six hours at Frankfurt airport during a snowstorm in Germany, and it was agonizing, despite the fact that the carrier, United Airlines, fed everyone and even showed a movie. Statistics are cold comfort when you are one of the statistics.

The registered - or 'trusted' - traveler idea has been discussed ever since the 2001 terrorist attacks using hijacked aircraft in the United States. The first RT program - Verified Identity Pass, Inc., known as Clear - didn't get up and running until 2005. It signed up 200,000 customers at about $200 U.S. per pop, but couldn't make a commercial go of it, suspending operations this past June. By that time, the U.S. Transportation Security Adminstration, deciding the programs - which were supposed to vet travelers by checking criminal records and using biometrics - had no security value. Indeed, Clear and two small rivals were basically airport concierge services, taking members to the head of the security line, where they then had to take off their belts and shoes and take out their laptops like everyone else.

Now, though, major organizations such as the National Business Travel Association are urging a revival and expansion of RT programs, and an investment bank, Henry, Inc., is bidding to buy the assets of Verified Identity Pass. Testifying last week before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, the NBTA's executive director, Michael W. McCormick, called for creation of a next generation of voluntary RT programs, to speed carefully vetted frequent travelers through inconsistent and vexing airport security.

The devil - as we are forever reminded - is in the details. And what eventually emerges from the Capitol Hill maw, if anything does, will be nothing if not detailed. Whether these old ideas will give travel a new face in the U.S. is far from certain, but these once-dead notions are showing intriguing signs of life.

1 comment:

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