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August 13, 2009

Cramped in a Stinky Jet: What the Latest Air Travel Squalor Story Means for Passenger Rights

Kate-Hanni
Kate Hanni, founder for the Coalition for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights,
in Washington ,D.C., on April 20, 2008
.
Photo: Stephanie Pfriender Stylander, Condé Nast Traveler

by Barbara S. Peterson

No one would wish the horror of a night trapped inside a cramped and stinking regional jet on anyone.  But the Continental Flight 2816 debacle couldn't have come at a better time for those pushing for a federal airline passengers bill of rights, which in theory would prevent anything like this from happening again.

The media frenzy over the ordeal--and firsthand reports from some of the 47 fliers stuck in the squalor of the ExpressJet plane--spawned a slew of predictable promises from government officials and politicians to act. Most recently, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he'd look into whether any laws were violated.

So Kate Hanni, the irrepressible leader of the passenger rights movement, ought to be feeling pretty good about the prospects of victory, right?  But when I spoke to her this morning, she was more cautious in her outlook. Read after the jump for her reasons why.

Congress is considering two different versions of the passenger rights legislation, and the one passed by the House of Representatives is, in Hanni's view, unacceptable.

The House bill would require the airlines to adopt plans for getting food, water, and other necessities to passengers trapped on stationary aircraft, but doesn't mandate that passengers be allowed to deplane after three hours--just that airlines come up with a plan for releasing them after a certain period of time--the exact duration left up to the airlines. "People would be at the mercy of the airlines to determine what is reasonable," Hanni says. The Senate plan, which has cleared the committee stage but awaits a vote by the full chamber, would mandate the so-called "three-hour rule" advocated by Hanni, which would require that passengers be allowed to deplane after that period.

Another problem flagged by Hanni: The House bill says that airports must come up with a plan to deal with strandings (like having buses and supplies at the ready), but only medium or large airports need comply. The Senate would extend that mandate to all airports. Hanni says that's necessary because when flights are diverted to the nearest airport, it could be any size.

The Transportation Department's pledge to investigate what went wrong is equally hollow.

Hanni says what the DOT really needs to do is to get behind a passenger rights law that would give it more enforcement power. "So DOT is going to investigate whether any laws were broken in the handling of the stranded flight--but the point is that we don't have a law yet!"

The opponents of a rights law, including the airline industry and the pilots union, among others, are also gearing up for a fight--and they've got far more money and clout.

It's the classic inside-the-Beltway trope, but outside of Hollywood films, the little guy rarely beats the odds. And it should also be noted that the opponents have raised some serious questions about how workable the three-hour rule would be. Hanni, a real estate agent who hails from Napa, California, admits that she was somewhat naive when she first began her quest two years ago. But she's now an experienced Washington hand and she has some powerful allies of her own. Stay tuned...

Further reading:
* More on air passenger rights: "My JetBlue Lawsuit"
* Take Your Carrier to Court Day
* Flier Rights: Who's On Your Side? (CNT, December 2008)
* On the Fly: The airline industry

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