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April 23, 2008

Passengers' Rights and the Presidential Race: Where Do the Candidates Stand?

Senator John McCain
The Maverick stays mum

by Barbara S. Peterson

The U.S. Senate may soon take up a massive bill to fund the Federal Aviation Administration, and it may provide a revealing look at where the three senators running for president stand on the hot-potato issue of a "passengers' bill of rights."

Language in the legislation would require airlines to provide passengers with food, water, and working restrooms in case of a lengthy delay, and to allow fliers to deplane if they've been stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours. Carriers would post their policies and list chronically delayed or canceled flights on their Web sites.

Introduced as a separate bill last year, the provision has gained new urgency after a similar New York state law last month was thrown out by an appeals court. According to this ruling, only the federal government can regulate airline services.

Senator Hillary Clinton recently signed on as a co-sponsor of the rights bill; as of Monday, senators Obama and McCain had not. Given his past support of passengers' rights, McCain's silence this time around is curious. Back in 1999, he issued a strong endorsement of the Airline Passenger Fairness Act, which went a lot further in micromanaging airline practices--it would have forced airlines to inform passengers of the extent of their overbooking and allowed passengers to get a refund within two days of buying a ticket, for any reason. Passengers would have been entitled to know if they had gotten the cheapest possible fare and to get advance notice of flight delays. Airlines would have been subject to steep fines if they refused.

"The airlines have reached the low water mark on customer service," McCain said that year in remarks before the Senate Commerce Committee he chaired. "Complaints are on the rise. And what is the number one complaint? That . . . concerns are falling on deaf ears."

McCain noted that airlines were strongly opposed to the bill, saying it would increase their costs and force them to raise ticket prices. "How does telling the truth about delays increase costs?" he asked. Nearly 10 years later, those points are as valid as when McCain first made them, especially after the recent debacle of maintenance-related mass cancellations and strandings. There's one big difference: the airlines were highly profitable then, and now they're in terrible financial shape--a point they're using as they furiously lobby Congress against the rights bill. But if delays and strandings are as bad this summer as they were last year, then it'll be a front-burner topic--especially as election day approaches.

"We're not talking about guarantees of French wines and blockbuster movies in coach," said McCain at the 1999 hearing. "We're talking about the expectation that you will be told the truth about why your flight was canceled."

Senator McCain's office did not respond to a request for comment.

More reading:
* State airline passenger bill of rights struck down
* Appeals court rejects passenger bill of rights
* Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights

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