Fliers’ rights still delayed by politics

On the Friday after Christmas two years ago, more than 13,000 passengers were cooped up without food and water in planes that had been circling closed airports or idling on tarmacs for up to 11 hours.

The “flights from hell” launched consumer advocates and the air-travel industries on a quest for a national bill of rights for fliers.

This winter, travelers will be just as exposed as then to the whims of the weather, air traffic congestion and cash-strapped airlines.

Efforts to pass legislation have failed because of airline lobbying against obligatory rules and recognition that travel woes come in too many shapes and sizes for any law to prevent an encore of the 2006 holiday horrors.

“We missed the peak again,” said Kate Hanni, a Napa Valley, Calif., real estate agent whose “imprisonment” on a plane that Dec. 29 prompted her to found the Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights. “The airlines can keep you stranded indefinitely on the tarmac in a sealed metal tube, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Those who want a bill of rights have pinned their hopes on the next Congress. But by the most optimistic projections, travelers would gain legal guarantees no sooner than summer.

Legislation that never made it out of the Senate transportation committee must be resubmitted when Congress convenes in January, and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) plans to offer a draft bill, said Natalie Ravitz, the senator’s spokeswoman.

The rights being sought include the opportunity to deplane if tarmac delays extend beyond three hours, inter-carrier honoring of tickets when an airline suspends service, penalties for lost bags, accommodation and food vouchers for long delays and more transparency into fare schedules, on-time records and refund policies.

There has been progress since 2006. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters created a tarmac task force after the headline-grabbing travel nightmares, naming 36 representatives of travel stakeholders to come up with proposed protections.

Instead of drafting a list of guaranteed rights and fines, the industry-dominated group agreed on “model contingency plans,” detailed in a 58-page report in November.

New York state legislators adopted a law that took effect New Year’s Day 2008 that requires airlines to stock water and snacks and to provide working restrooms and fresh-air infusions when planes have been grounded for more than three hours.

Canada also passed a consumer protection bill this year, and the European Union has had such laws on the books for years.

The Air Transport Association, the trade group representing the principal U.S. airlines, recognizes that tarmac delays are a problem but objects to taking decision-making out of the cockpits and control towers.

“One lengthy tarmac delay with inhumane conditions is one too many, and we are working hard to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said spokesman David Castelveter. “But we are vehemently opposed to a mandatory three-hour rule.”

It’s not always an option to get out of a line of aircraft waiting to take off, especially when delays are weather related, Castelveter said. Mandatory terminal returns would cause further delays and disruption because controllers would have to choreograph more ground movements, he said.

“To the extent we can go back to the gate, we should and we will,” he said. “What we oppose is a mandatory requirement, recognizing that it is sometimes just not possible to do that.”

The International Airline Passengers Association, a global organization of 400,000 frequent fliers, lamented the failed quest for a bill of rights but said a one-size-fits-all formula could create more problems than it solves.

Michael Cintron, the association’s director for consumer and travel industries affairs, said consideration must be given to the size of each airport and services available.

“It’s hard to say we need more time to do case studies, but these are the scenarios that do come up,” Cintron said of the ongoing efforts for a bill of rights. “This is what we tried to tackle with the task force and will continue to work toward. This should not die on the vine.”