Airlines hope to block flier Bill of Rights


(eTN) – The U.S. airline industry’s main trade group goes to federal court next week to try to block a New York state law that would punish airlines for stranding passengers on jets without adequate food, water or sanitation.
New York’s airline passenger Bill of Rights, signed by Gov. Eliot Spitzer in August, is set to take effect Jan. 1.

The first-of-its-kind state law would require airlines to provide food, water, electricity and waste removal when a flight from a New York airport waits more than three hours to take off.

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It allows New York to fine airlines up to $1,000 per passenger if airlines don’t comply.

The New York legislature overwhelmingly approved the measure after a February ice storm stranded thousands of passengers on jets for hours at New York John F. Kennedy airport.

Congress and the Bush administration have proposed new consumer protections but nothing as strong as the New York law.

The Air Transport Association, representing U.S. airlines, has asked a federal judge in Albany to stop the law from taking effect. The ATA says only federal authorities can regulate airline service. The first hearing is next Tuesday.

ATA spokesman David Castelveter said long tarmac delays such as those during February’s storm are rare and unavoidable and that airlines are working to improve onboard service when they occur.

The ATA’s lawyers argue in court papers that airlines would be hurt if other legislatures pass laws that vary from state to state. “This does not need to be legislated,” Castelveter said.

The case comes as the number of long tarmac delays is rising amid increased air congestion, especially at New York airports.

Through October, 1,523 flights waited more than three hours to take off from U.S. airports, up from 1,152 in the same 2006 period, the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports.

“Airlines are not doing their job, and the federal government has dropped the ball,” said New York Sen. Charles Fuschillo, a Long Island Republican who sponsored the legislation. “I hope other states follow.”

Fuschillo says the federal court should uphold the state law because the “amenities” it guarantees stranded passengers — food, water and sanitation — fall outside the legal definition of airline service.

Federal officials, consumer advocates and airlines are closely watching the case.

Paul Hudson, head of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, says the law might be upheld if the judge views it as a reasonable exercise of New York’s right to regulate public safety.