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October 02, 2008

Passenger Rights Bill Left at the Gate in Washington

Waiting
Flying is a waiting game these days.
AP Photo

by Barbara S. Peterson

With the nation's attention riveted by congressional dithering over the Wall Street bailout, it's not surprising few people noticed that another attempt to pass a federal "airline passengers' bill of rights" just went down in defeat. President Bush signed a bill Tuesday night that would fund the FAA for another six months, but without a guarantee giving fliers basic amenities during long waits on the tarmac, a provision sought by some consumer advocates. 

FlyersRights.org leader Kate Hanni, who's been pushing for the bill of rights, agitated for the provision to be tacked on to the stop-gap FAA bill, which would have guaranteed its passage. (Bush was to sign this bill or the nation's aviation system would have ground to a halt when funding ran out October 1.) The consumers' rights measure would require airlines to outline how they would handle lengthy tarmac delays, such as the infamous JetBlue Valentine's Day meltdown two years ago. Carriers would have to show they could provide minimal services such as clean water, fresh air, and working restrooms to those trapped on planes stuck on the runway, and they'd have to permit fliers to deplane after a certain agreed-upon deadline. Airlines say such rules would wreak havoc on their operations, forcing pilots to return to the gate even if they were near the head of the line for take-off.   

Despite this week's defeat, the issue isn't going away: the FAA will again be on the brink of insolvency on March 9 unless a new bill is passed, and a whole new set of players will be in Washington. And it should be noted that passenger rights is not the only hot potato holding up passage of a more comprehensive aviation bill. A massive multi-billion dollar plan to modernize the nation's air traffic control (ATC) system has also been stuck in limbo; private plane operators are fighting a new user fee on their flights to help fund the upgrade, which they say is unfair given that commercial airlines are by far the greatest users of the air traffic system. The major airlines counter that they've been subsidizing small operators that clog up the skies.  The deadlock has so far kept the country's ATC system frozen in a 1950s time warp, without the benefits of a satellite-based GPS-type system that could better handle the expected one billion U.S. passengers by 2015.

Further reading:
* On the Fly
* FlyersRights.org

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