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January 15, 2009

Take Your Carrier to Court Day

Kate Hanni
Kate Hanni, founder of the
Coalition for an Airline
Passenger Bill of Rights,
in Washington, D.C. last April
(click to enlarge)
Photo:
Stephanie Pfriender Stylander

by Barbara S. Peterson

As President Bush winds up his last week in office, here's something to ponder, especially if you happen to be sitting on a plane held on the tarmac: One of his administration's last acts in the transportation field was to approve a policy that could open the way for consumers to sue airlines in state courts for any action that might violate their "contract of carriage," the pact that, unbeknownst to most travelers, goes into effect each time an airline sells you a ticket.

Few people have ever pored over the reams of gobbledygook in a real contract of carriage; most of us have never even tried to get a copy of one. (If you care, they are available online. Just type in the name of the airline and "contract of carriage." I just tried it for United and got about 50 single-spaced pages of rules.) But if the DOT has its way, you may want to brush up on your legalese. Airlines may soon have to rewrite their documents to include specific pledges on what they'll do for you when things go awry--and if they fall down on the job, you could get more than a lame letter of apology.

Never mind the fact that it is the administration's failure to tackle flight delays that has brought us to this point. Is this really a big deal? You bet. As business travel expert Joe Brancatelli wrote in his Seat 2B column recently on Portfolio.com: "that extraordinary bureaucratic step would allow unhappy and mistreated fliers to sue airlines in state courts. The 1978 law that deregulated air transportation currently requires travelers to sue airlines in federal court, an impossibly high bar for most individuals."

Brancatelli also gave some of the credit for this change to Kate Hanni, the ubiquitous airline industry gadfly who founded the Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights after being trapped for hours on a plane in Texas. But the story gets stranger: Hanni, it turns out, doesn't necessarily see this as a victory--and in fact, she's dismissing the potential legal windfall as a smokescreen, and calling again for a push to enact a federal passengers bill of rights. 

"Hanni...doesn't seem to understand that shifting the battle for passenger redress to state courts would be a gigantic victory for beleaguered fliers," Brancatelli wrote. San Francisco attorney Alexander Anolik, an authority on travel law, agrees that short of passage of a federal bill of rights for fliers (a long shot, given what Congress has on its plate), consumers should familiarize themselves with the airlines' policies as spelled out in their contracts. "If they do not live up to them it is easier to sue for a breach of contract," he says.

And to be fair, Hanni's efforts did get the DOT to agree to provide more detailed information on excessive tarmac delays, which it just started releasing on its Web site. So . . . would you welcome a chance to take the airlines to court or is this yet another step toward a lawyers' full employment act?

Further reading:
* Recommendations from the DOT task force on delays
* New tarmac delay data
* 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

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