This may be the year frustrated airline passengers finally get some relief in the form of a federal bill of rights.
That's in large part because states are now taking the initiative and telling America's airlines they had better treat passengers with more respect when they're delayed or they'll have to pay up.
On Jan. 1, New York became the first state to enact its own passenger bill of rights. Now, if a plane is stranded on the tarmac for more than three hours in the Empire State, the airline must provide its passengers with clean water, food, and sanitary bathrooms or face a fine of $1,000 per person.
The major airlines, represented by the Air Transport Association (ATA), are challenging the law. They're adamantly opposed, arguing that it's impossible for anyone, especially a state, to legislate customer service. They sued. But just before the new year, a federal judge ruled against them, saying the law had nothing to do with aviation and interstate commerce and everything to do with basic health and safety, which are well within the state's purview.
That win has prompted lawmakers in at least three other states to draft similar legislation and is giving new impetus to a bill in Congress, which decrees on a federal level that the nation's air travelers have the same basic rights as those guaranteed by New York.
"This year the equilibrium that was struck between low fares and flight delays was shattered [by the record delays]," says Kate Hanni, president of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, which has more than 21,000 members. "Passengers have decided we've gone too far to the dark side as far as air travel is concerned and we need basic human standards restored to air travel."
The airlines, on the other hand, deny that any "basic human standards" have been violated, and they're continuing to fight the New York law. Last week, the ATA filed an appeal. It insists that only the federal government has the authority to legislate airline customer service. That said, though, they also strongly oppose any federal passenger bill of rights.
"It's been awfully convenient for Ms. Hanni and others to claim that this is a health and safety issue when the reality is that no one's health or safety has been impeded during these very rare instances," says David Castelveter, ATA vice president. "Every aircraft operated by our members has medical emergency kits on planes and has direct access to their own or contracted medical personnel on the ground."
Hanni disagrees. In December 2006 she and her family were stranded on the tarmac in Austin, Texas, for almost nine hours. Twelve other jets were stuck there, too. She claims there wasn't enough drinking water, toilets overflowed, and people were hungry.
"We also witnessed medical events, people getting in fistfights and getting arrested, hazmat being called because a dog had pooped all over some people," she says. "There was just a callous disregard for the passengers."
That incident, along with a Valentine's Day ice storm a few months later that also left hundreds stranded for hours, prompted Congress and the Department of Transportation to take notice. Hearings were called, and again a Passenger Bill of Rights was debated. In the end, the airlines convinced Congress and the DOT that they would do better. Each one now has a contingency plan for how best to serve customers when there are long delays. But many passenger advocates are still not satisfied.
"The DOT are wimps on all of this. They haven't used their statutory authority or the bully pulpit enough," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. "Congress attempted to fill the vacuum, but obviously not to the extent that was perceived to be acceptable to New York."
And so, New York did it. But Mr. Mitchell and others warn there could be some unintended consequences of a passenger bill of rights – like more canceled flights. That's prompted the Air Travelers Association, which calls itself a consumer group but doesn't disclose its membership or where its funding comes from, to oppose a bill of rights.
"We oppose anything that's going to make things worse for passengers, and we especially oppose anything that increases cancellations for passengers," says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association.
He and others are also worried that 50 different state laws would create a patchwork of regulations. But Mitchell and other consumer organizations still favor a federal law. "There are unintended consequences; New York could be followed by many other governmental authorities and this could become a nightmare scenario," says Mitchell. "In recognition of that ... Congress and the DOT are going to get their acts together and the ATA and the airlines are going to welcome it. This could have a storybook ending."