May 13, 2007

Airline passengers lobby legislators for 'bill of rights'

Washington- After being stuck on an American Airlines plane last December for nine hours without food or running water and enduring overflowing toilets and shuttered ventilation systems, Kate Hanni decided a mere letter of complaint would not be enough.

The California Realtor started the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, which has not only brought together 13,000 like-minded fliers but helped produce two separate consumer bills now under consideration by the U.S. House and Senate.

Proposed fixes range from giving the public better information about chronically late flights to guaranteeing ample water, snacks and ventilation on tarmac-bound airplanes to mandating an exit strategy for those who want to get off when takeoff or gate arrival is delayed by three hours.

Industry officials say the problems can't be completely solved as long as bad weather remains immune to legislation. They caution government mandates could make matters worse and that the private market should be allowed to work.

The momentum for the current passenger rights movement is fueled by several factors, including the regularity with which members of Congress fly between Washington and their districts, giving them more than their share of unpleasant experiences.

Two major airline meltdowns over the past six months put the issue in the public eye.

One was the nine American Airlines jets diverted to Austin, Texas, because of strong thunderstorms at the airline's Dallas-Fort Worth hub that left hundreds of passengers, including Hanni, trapped for hours.

American's Texas gridlock was followed by the Feb. 14 meltdown at JetBlue Airways, an aviation success story that had consistently beat more established carriers in consumer ratings.

At one point, JetBlue had 52 aircraft stacked up on the ground at its New York City hub after snow and ice blanketed John F. Kennedy Airport. The airline had only 21 available gates. One passenger said he was stranded on a jet for 11 hours, then switched to another JetBlue plane, where he waited another 6½ hours without taking off.

On Thursday, JetBlue's board removed David Neeleman, the airline's founder, as the company's CEO. JetBlue lost an estimated $30 million after the Valentine's Day mishap.

Bruce Alpert

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