Airlines vs. Congress: Passenger Bill of Rights Needed?

Massive delays earlier this year still spark debate over passenger treatment.

January 8, 2009, 12:13 AM

June 13, 2007 — -- The airline horror stories of this past winter -- with JetBlue passengers stuck on the tarmac for up to 11 hours -- still reverberate in the industry.

Add that to delays that are at record levels, and it's not hard to see why some airline passengers are fed up.

A grass-roots group visited Capitol Hill today to release a report on stranded passengers and delayed flights.

"We're fighting for passenger's rights, because none exist," said Kate Hanni of the Coalition for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

While it's not hard to see why some airline passengers are fed up, the data is challenging to sort out, and even Hanni's group admits its report is incomplete and does not contain complete statistics.

The Department of Transportation said that last year just 36 flights sat on the tarmac for longer than five hours before taking off. So far this year, only 16 flights have met that same fate.

But remember those JetBlue passengers who were stuck at New York's JFK Airport in February?

Their flights weren't counted in the numbers for long tarmac delays because those flights were ultimately canceled. Only flights that actually take off are counted in numbers for tarmac delays.

"The DOT and the airlines are lying to the general public about the possibility of being stranded, and it is happening every day," Hanni said.

But Jim May of the Air Transport Association said although stories of long delays and disgruntled passengers might grab headlines, the reality is that only a small number of passengers are affected.

"At the end of the day, if you were to double, triple or quadruple those numbers it would still come in at, lets say 100 out of 7.2 million," May said, "and that is an infinitesimally small number compared to the number of flights that we are conducting on an annual basis."

The airlines also continue to insist that there's no need for a law mandating passenger rights -- but a bill to do just that has passed the key checkpoint by making its way through the Senate Commerce Committee.

While that bill has a long road of Senate and House votes ahead before it could become law, it would require airlines to provide food, water and usable toilets during long tarmac delays. It also includes a mandate for them to come up with a plan to get passengers off a stranded plane in a reasonable amount of time.

"None of this should be hard and fast written into law," May countered.

"The greater flexibility the carriers have to accommodate passenger needs as well as what the carrier needs to complete a flight, the better off we are going to be," he said.

May noted that if the bill becomes a law, carriers might decide to avoid penalties for not complying by simply cancelling flights instead of completing them and facing negative consequences.

But one of the bill's supporters believes airlines are long overdue on their promise to address some of the problems passengers face in extreme delay situations.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., helped sponsor the bill and admits the measure is "not perfect but it's a huge step forward.

"The onus and the pressure is on the airline to come up with a plan as to how long they are willing to hold passengers in essence hostage on an aircraft."