Fliers’ Rights Need a Big Lift
Washington should step forward and support a rigorous airline passenger bill of rights—like the one introduced in Congress by Rep. Mike Thompson—which advocates setting clear guidelines for carriers about when to allow fliers to deplane and how to award compensation for long flight delays. Pro or con?
Pro: Let’s Mandate Airline Humanitarianism
After JetBlue’s (JBLU) disastrous Feb. 14 snow-in, which trapped some passengers on the tarmac for nearly 11 miserable hours, the carrier quickly adopted a "customer bill of rights." Its terms include discounted or free future flights for those delayed one or more hours, and it guarantees increased staffing to better handle emergencies.
Those promises may sound fair-minded, but what if passengers don’t care to follow a bad experience with another flight on the same airline just to receive compensatory discounts? A cash refund would be more appropriate. And a larger, far more crucial flaw lurks behind the magnanimous facade: Any rules an airline adopts now, it can easily jettison later.
That’s why the U.S. government, not the carriers, needs to enforce an airline passenger bill of rights, like the one Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif) has introduced in Congress. Forget about ambiguous airline terms such as "reasonable delays." A national standard would specify just how long is reasonable.
"Acts of God?" Let the lawmakers determine what constitutes a blameless catastrophe, as well as how quickly a carrier must react to minimize wait times and facilitate rebooking. And they should also spell out just how quickly—and fully—the airline must inform passengers about weather or mechanical problems.
Anyone who deems such federal action unjustified should consider the speed with which one nonprofit group—the Coalition for Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights—has grown. Founded by California real estate broker Kate Hanni after she and her children endured hours of discomfort aboard an American Airlines (AMR) flight in December, 2006, the group already has 13,000 members.
"It took 57 hours for American to get us from San Francisco to Mobile [Ala.]," Hanni recalls, explaining that her plane was diverted to Austin, Tex. "The only water we had onboard was from a bathroom sink next to a backed-up toilet. We had to pay for two nights of a hotel stay, and ended up wearing the same clothes for three days."
Hanni urges consumers to call their congressional representatives and ask them to support a federal airline passengers’ bill of rights. The standards she advocates include providing food, water, sanitary conditions, and access to medical care to people on flights delayed more than three hours; giving 150% refunds to those delayed more than 12 hours; and establishing procedures for returning passengers to terminal gates when delays occur on the tarmac.
Let’s face it, federal bureaucracy notwithstanding, there are some jobs best handled by the government. "Look at how long they’ve been in charge of air traffic control," says Melissa Abernathy, a corporate travel consultant and writer. "Have you heard of any jets colliding midair in the U.S. lately?"
Con: Uncle Sam Shouldn’t Tinker with Safety Issues
No one wants to be stuck for hours aboard an airplane going nowhere. Yet mandating rules to govern an airline’s action at such a time represents the worst-case bureaucratic "solution" to a problem that remains blessedly rare. A so-called "passengers’ bill of rights" will mean higher costs for the airlines, which will show up in higher fares and cut corners.
Airlines operate with virtually zero margin for error. Congested jets, airports, and skies strain under the high demand for air travel, in addition to a dated infrastructure—in particular, a doddering air-traffic control system designed to handle 1970s-era commerce. Still, the U.S. has been remarkably fortunate in avoiding severe airline mishaps. Travelers here enjoy perhaps the safest air transport system in the world.
Pushing Congress to step into airline operations strikes many aviation experts as exceedingly unwise. It’s a unique industry in the business landscape, functioning with countless variables that make the federal government ill-suited to prescribe rules.
In many specific areas—guarding against pricing collusion, allocating landing slots, overseeing maintenance standards—government regulation makes sense for the public good. But having legislators decide how to compensate passengers for a weather delay or when a pilot needs to take a plane out of the waiting-for-takeoff queue is a bad idea born of frustration.
Financially, this plan could prove disastrous. Say a 757 loaded with 180 people has a delay, and the carrier must pay everyone aboard $50. That’s a $9,000 bill. Now consider that same airline with seven 757s, four 767s, and 14 other jets, all sitting on the ramp due to a summer thunderstorm or icy winter conditions. Suddenly, the tab balloons to $250,000 or more—a sum no airline could bear.
What’s more, this is an issue the industry can address on its own. Many companies already have policies outlining compensation and how long they let planes sit after boarding—and many more are likely to adopt some after JetBlue’s fiasco.
And what about when the problem isn’t weather but an oil leak or a failing sensor? Would the presence of government regulations pressure mechanics into making hasty repairs to spare their employer from fines?
Airlines despise delays and cancellations just as much as stranded travelers do. New legislation isn’t going to change the realities of delays. It will just ensure we pay more to fly, while having to worry that someone trimmed a safety corner to avoid writing us a small check.