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.

"It's a problem for the airlines to perform the way they perform," said Dean Headley, an associate professor at Wichita State University who co-authored the report. "They just can't hold it together."

James May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association (ATA), which represents major U.S. carriers, will also participate in today's hearings. He recently blamed the industry's problems on bad weather and an outdated air traffic control system.

"The vast majority of customer service issues arise from weather and congestion flight delays that lead to misconnected flights, lost luggage and related complaints," May said in a statement. "These delays are inextricably linked with the government's outdated and inefficient air traffic control system."

In response to their problems this winter, JetBlue announced their own Customer Bill of Rights in late February.

The program includes a compensation plan for travelers based on the length of delays "within JetBlue's control." They exclude delays because of weather, air traffic control, crew shortages and maintenance problems. JetBlue passengers now receive vouchers based on the length of flight delays, as well as a complete refund if a flight is canceled within 12 hours of its original departure time.

"We believe our customer bill of rights is broader, deeper and more meaningful to customers than anything Congress could legislate," said JetBlue spokeswoman Jenny Dervin.

However, some airline customers demand that Congress take action.

"Passengers have no rights," said Michael Gast of New York City after he spent six hours waiting for a JetBlue flight to take off from Pittsburgh in mid-February. "I would ask legislators to re-examine a system that doesn't work at all."

In 1999, the airlines avoided congressional action by agreeing to improve customer service on their own, adopting a 12-point pledge, including the promise to "meet customers' needs during long on-aircraft delays."

Years of broken promises have led to today's hearings. Headley has a simple solution. "[The airlines] created this problem by a lack of performance," he said. "Just do what you promised -- that's all."