First push for a Passenger Bill of Rights

US lawmakers, responding to rising complaints, offer bills to givecustomers greater recourse against airlines.

Ever been bumped off a flight because it was overbooked? Or learned it was canceled after only a few people showed up at the gate? Or had a sudden change of plan that left you holding a nonrefundable ticket?

Several lawmakers want to make sure it will never happen again. In fact, they're ready to mandate it by law.

Their move to introduce a so-called Passenger Bill of Rights springs from a rising - some would say unprecedented - public frustration over the state of air travel in this era of deregulation. Angered by tales of passengers stranded on runways for 12 hours and buoyed by travelers' irritation over the recent American Airlines sick-out, the lawmakers want to give people greater recourse against airlines.

"There is outrage against the lack of service by the airlines," says Rep. Bud Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "They need to start treating passengers like they were human beings."

Measures just introduced in the House and the Senate would require airlines to give passengers refunds, warn them if their flight has been oversold, and explain why a flight is delayed or canceled. The House version would require carriers to reimburse passengers for their time if a flight is delayed on the runway more than two hours.

"Those should be basic rights, those should be just a given," says Liane Cunio, a human-resources administrator from New York whose flight to Los Angeles had just been canceled because of the labor dispute at American Airlines. She acknowledged she was more frustrated than usual.

Complaints abound

But her concerns are shared by thousands of other air travelers.

Between 1997 and 1998, the number of reported problems at airlines jumped 26 percent, according to the US Department of Transportation. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona calls that a "rising tide of consumer complaints" from a well of national frustration that runs deep and wide. So he, Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, and Representative Shuster decided it was time to act.

To the airlines, the proposals represent unwarranted government interference in their private business. If Congress approves the bills, they argue, passengers will feel it in the pocketbook.

"The government messing around in the marketplace is going to mean one thing," says David Fuscus of the Air Transport Association, a lobbying group for the major airlines. "Higher ticket prices."

Refund required

The Senate bill would require airlines to give passengers a full refund, if it's requested within 48 hours of buying a ticket. Mr. Fuscus argues that would amount to a direct assault on the companies' ability to set their own prices. For instance, he says, passengers can already buy a refundable ticket; they just have to pay extra for it.

"Because people can switch around and do anything they want with that ticket, there is a certain risk to us that we're not going to sell seats that we would otherwise be able to sell," he says. "So we charge a premium for a refundable ticket."

But the bill's sponsors argue that an airline ticket should be just like a dress. You buy it, take it home, and if you don't like it, you should be able to return it within a reasonable amount of time.

"We're not asking the airlines to do anything that other businesses don't," says a Senate aide. "If only five people show up at a movie theater, they don't cancel the show, do they? The corner store doesn't sell me a can of Coke for 50 cents, then turn around and sell one to you 20 minutes later for 20 cents. Why should airlines be able to?"

The Senate bill would also require airlines to check a passenger's baggage to the final destination, if the carrier issued a "unified" ticket. That's a ticket that requires passengers to switch airlines. Now, the traveler usually has to retrieve his or her own luggage and recheck it at the new airline. The bill would also require that all checked luggage arrive at the passenger's destination within 24 hours, "unless additional delays are necessary."

Fuscus calls that unnecessary. He points out that, according to the DOT, 99.5 percent of all checked luggage already arrives at its destination with the passenger. Of the 0.5 percent that doesn't, 80 percent arrives within 24 hours.

David Stempler of the Air Travelers Association, a Washington-based passenger advocacy group, says the provisions requiring airlines to be more forthcoming about information could be helpful. But he also believes Congress is missing the point.

The best thing Congress could do, he says, is to find ways to encourage new carriers to enter the market. That, he says, is more important than requiring the airlines to behave better - but may have that effect.

"We really don't have enough competition in the airline business," says Mr. Stempler. "The government allowed too much consolidation during the 1980s, so we really don't have sufficient competition to give people a real choice."

Senator McCain and Representative Shuster agree that is a fundamental problem. They're also working to pass legislation that would make it easier for low-fare start-up carriers to get access to some of the nation's largest airports.

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