Basic Rights of Flying: Water, Food and Right to Deplane

After a disastrous winter for the airline industry, full of incidents and controversies, the Senate will hold hearings today to examine legislation to introduce a passengers' bill of rights.

The Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearings will address the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Act of 2007, introduced by committee members Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

"This hearing will be vital as the Commerce Committee investigates the impact and possible solutions to the frustrating delays and cancellations that affect millions of Americans who depend on the airline industry for safe travel," Snowe said in a statement. "I look forward with Sen. Boxer to this important hearing so that we can prevent the type of misery experienced by far too many passengers this past winter."

Committee members will meet with officials from the Department of Transportation and leaders of the travel industry, including Kate Hanni of the Coalition for Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights.

"The airlines have had the opportunity to make good on their promises to improve customer service and ensure basic rights for passengers," said Hanni. "It's time for Congress to ensure that airlines make passengers their top priority."

The new legislation would require airlines to give passengers the option of safely leaving a plane they have boarded after that plane has been on the ground three hours with the plane door closed. It would also mandate that airlines provide passengers with necessary services such as food, potable water and adequate restroom facilities during flight delays.

The hearings come on the heels of a tumultuous winter for the airline industry. On New Year's Day weekend, American Airlines left passengers stranded on a plane on the Austin, Texas tarmac for 10 hours.

On Feb. 14, JetBlue was guilty of similar mistakes when hundreds of passengers were kept on planes on the Kennedy Airport runway in New York for up to 10 hours. The airline then succumbed to a combination of an overwhelmed communications system and misplaced flight crews and planes, forcing the cancellation of most of its Presidents Day schedule.

The incidents prompted Congress to take action. A day after the JetBlue problems at JFK, Boxer and Snowe introduced their bipartisan legislation for a passenger bill of rights.

"To keep passengers, which usually include infants and the elderly, on a plane for 11 hours in the worst of conditions is absurd," said Boxer. "If a plane is stuck on the tarmac or at the gate for hours, a passenger should have the right to deplane. No one should be held hostage on an aircraft when clearly they can find a way to get people off safely."

On Feb. 27, the Department of Transportation announced plans to investigate airlines' customer service commitments.

"I have serious concerns about airlines' contingency planning that allows passengers to sit on the tarmac for hours on end," said DOT Secretary Mary Peters. "It is imperative that airlines do everything possible to ensure that situations like these do not occur again."

Peters asked DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel to look into the problems. Scovel will testify at today's hearing.

On March 18, the annual Airline Quality Rating report revealed a systemwide increase in flight delays, lost luggage and bumped passengers.

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