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January 29, 2009

Air Passenger Rights: It's Baaaack

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by Barbara S. Peterson

I just heard from Kate Hanni, who'd seen my recent post on the prospect of taking airlines to court if they don't live up to the service standards in their contracts of carriage. She worries that consumers might get the wrong idea and think it's easy to sue a big airline if, say, the flight attendants run out of pretzels before they get to your seat. Hanni has a good point: The airlines' current contracts have enough wiggle room to drive the proverbial tank through.

"The DOT is only requiring that the airlines have a plan," not what they put in that plan, Hanni told me, adding that she expects the airlines to craft the usual escape clauses such as "reasonable amount of time" rather than a precise time limit on how long they'll hold passengers aboard a plane that's going nowhere. But Hanni points out that may all be moot: Bills to legislate airline behavior in such cases are back in the hopper on Capitol Hill (Senate Bill S. 213 and House Bill H.R. 624), and since President Obama had cosponsored the same bill when he was a senator, she's got high hopes for passage this year.   

Still, a reality check is in order.

Who expects Congress to focus on passenger rights at a time when tens of thousands of people are losing their jobs and their retirement savings? The airlines, which are just now reporting worse-than-expected losses for the full year, will likely capitalize on their dire financial situation to fend off any new government regulations. But while Hanni has been criticized by some in the media for her habit of shooting from the lip, at least she is doing what she set out to do--on a shoestring budget, no less--unlike some of the other pretenders to the title I covered in our December issue.

Among the more dubious consumer rights "advocates" is a Maryland attorney named David Stempler. He frequently appears on CNN and other cable news shows as the "mouthpiece" of air passengers, and yet he freely admits on his Web site that his so-called Air Travelers Association is not accepting members! Stempler has never once responded to repeated messages seeking his comment on the membership question and, more pertinent, on whom he represents in his legal practice. Oddly enough, at the same time he was ducking our calls, I heard him interviewed live on a radio show. (By the way, Stempler opposes the air travelers bill of rights.)

Now there's word of a new organization that claims to represent air travelers. Other than a press release announcing the creation of this self-styled "Association for Airline Passenger Rights" and its Web site, there's scant information on who's behind it besides some quotes that, weirdly, took credit for coming up with the idea for a fliers bill of rights. I checked around, and it seems the group's executive director, Brandon Macsata, has made a name for himself as a grass-roots activist, mainly in the area of rights for AIDS patients and the disabled. I've sent him a message and will report back on what I learn.

Further reading:
* A notice from the DOT on changes in consumer protections, such as increases in the lost luggage reimbursements
* Hanni is one of Condé Nast Traveler's 2008 trail blazers
* Bush Officials Claim a Kinder, Gentler Airport Security
* Air Travel Forecast 2009
* On the Fly: The airline industry



You are, of course, right in every way!

But here's how we see it.

Issues of the economy are exacerbated by issues where passengers will lose 42,000,000,000.00 in personal losses due to flight delays in 2008. I borrow that figure from Alan Levin's article. But it's nearly correct. If small business owners cannot get to their destinations on time, the "unintended consequences" will destroy their businesses.

There is no question that the economy must have this administrations attention, but these basic passengers rights measures will make a huge economic difference for many, many travelers who rely on air travel.

Restoring some sanity to the skies is inevitable and it's feel good legislation that this administration can get behind.

You can be sure that the airlines will have their hand out for bailouts, and we'll be there!

We want passengers rights to be a pre-cursor to any further taxpayer dollars that are given to bail out the airlines.

Also, remember, the airlines have always used their "financial pain" as an excuse not to care for the needs of passengers. But they create their schedules, they pay their executives huge bonuses, and they answer to nearly no one.

Something has to give, and we believe President Obama and this new Congress is ready to give the passengers once and for all!

Kate Hanni

Also it should be noted that the sponsors of the current passenger rights bill are from California - Senator Barbara Boxer and Rep. Mike Thompson -- where there has been strong support for a state law to mandate airline passenger rights, much like the short-lived effort in New York. Does anyone know what happened with the California bill?

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