JetBlue woes spur call for fliers' bill of rights

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Call it JetBlue's Valentine's Day debacle. And it's now prompting the question: Is it time for a passenger bill of rights?

Caught by frigid, icy weather and bad airline planning, some JetBlue passengers ended up spending as many as 11 hours trapped on planes on a frozen tarmac in New York. The airline is still struggling to get its system back operating smoothly.

In December, a similar scene played out as thousands of American Airlines passengers had to endure tarmac sits as long as eight hours because of thunderstorms.

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These two incidents have prompted outraged passengers and lawmakers like Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California to call for legislation that would require airlines to allow passengers to deplane after three hours, among other things.

"No one should be held hostage on an aircraft when clearly they can find a way to get people off safely," Senator Boxer said in a statement posted on her website.

Groups like the Travel Insider are now circulating petitions online demanding a passengers bill of rights. And blogs, like strandedpassengers.blogspot.com, have been set up specifically for people to recount their tales of airline woe. The increase in delays, lost luggage, and packed planes is fueling the momentum.

"It may be time for [a passenger bill of rights]," says Richard Gritta, an aviation economist at the University of Portland in Oregon. "I've felt the increasing consolidation in the industry was beginning to affect consumer rights, and this JetBlue incident is just the big straw that broke the camel's back."

But many people within the travel industry are opposed to such a bill. And Professor Gritta himself has mixed feelings about it – primarily because he's not sure the federal government can legislate customer service. He's also concerned that a new set of federal requirements could hamper the airline industry's still precarious financial recovery.

Others in the industry are more adamantly opposed. Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa., contends a passenger bill of rights could end up creating an entire slew of unintended consequences, such as more passenger inconvenience as well as higher prices.

For instance, one reason that airlines and pilots choose to sit on the tarmac is that if they go back to the gate, they lose their slot in the takeoff line. That could add even more hours of delay to a trip.

"Say a thunderstorm gridlocked O'Hare Airport for three hours and all planes were required to go back to the gate after three hours," says Mr. Mitchell. "It would be a catastrophe for a week [because of various FAA and crew regulations]. And so as well- intentioned as it may be, if you tie the hand of these airport managers and airlines, you're going to get more delays."

The airlines' efforts to regulate themselves have generally improved service, despite the current problems, Mitchell also says. He notes that according to the Department of Transportation, "between 2000 and 2006, there were 330 instances (out of 88 million flights) where airplanes were stuck on the tarmac for more than five hours."

But advocates of a bill of rights say it would prompt airlines to respond far better when bad weather or some other crisis hits.

This is not the first time that passenger frustration has fueled calls for legislative action. Back in 1999, after a Northwest flight was stranded on a snowy runway for more than eight hours, congressional leaders proposed a passenger bill of rights that had widespread support. Among other things, it would have required airlines to pay fines for particularly grievous treatment of passengers. But the airline industry countered that it was better to let the airlines regulate themselves: It argued it could do a better job of instituting its own voluntary customer-service standards. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, one of the lead sponsors of the bill, met with airline officials on June 23, 1999, and agreed to drop the proposal in favor of voluntary action.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics: "That same day, American, United and Continental Airlines combined to contribute $95,000 in soft money to the Republicans. The issue was never revived in the 106th Congress."

As of Monday morning, JetBlue had still canceled 23 percent of its flights. Over the weekend, JetBlue's president, David Neeleman, apologized to inconvenienced passengers and said he was "mortified" by the airline's meltdown. In its attempts to keep costs down, it did not have enough staff properly trained to deal with a weather crisis of last week's magnitude. Its own pilots and flight attendants were stranded in airports while some planes sat empty, unable to fly because they had no crews.

Mr. Neeleman pledged to train 100 existing employees within two weeks to prevent another series of rolling delays and cancellations.

"JetBlue is taking this aggressive, unprecedented action to end rolling delays and cancellations, and to operate a new schedule reliably," the airline said in a statement.

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