Two years later, 'bill of rights' for airline passengers is as far out of reach as ever

December 24, 2008|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,Los Angeles Times

On the Friday after Christmas two years ago, more than 13,000 passengers - out of food, water and patience - were cooped up in planes that had been circling closed airports or idling on the tarmac for as long as 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.

But this season, travelers will be just as exposed as before to the whims of the weather, air traffic congestion and cash-strapped airlines.

Efforts to pass legislation have failed because of airline lobbying 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.

"As of today, 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 even the most optimistic projections, travelers could gain legal guarantees no sooner than summer.

Legislation that never made it out of the Senate transportation committee this year must be resubmitted when Congress convenes in January, and Sen. Barbara Boxer plans to offer a draft bill, said Natalie Ravitz, the California Democrat'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 airlines' fare schedules, on-time records and refund policies.

There has been some progress since 2006. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters created the so-called tarmac task force after the headline-grabbing travel nightmares, naming 36 representatives of travel stakeholders to come up with proposed protections. But instead of drafting a list of guaranteed rights and fines, the industry-dominated group agreed only on toothless "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.

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