Airline Gaffes Fuel Passenger Bill of Rights

Feb. 16, 2007 — -- Even in the best of times, air travel can cause plenty of aggravation and criticism. In the worst of times, it can be so bad that Congress has to get involved.

The next time you're upset about your flight taking off a half hour late, imagine waiting 10 hours; that was the fate for some JetBlue passengers on Wednesday at Kennedy Airport in New York City.

With harsh winter weather battering the Northeast, airlines have struggled to cope with the elements and get travelers to their destinations, but even the airlines admit that situations such as Wednesday's JetBlue debacle are simply unacceptable.

JetBlue spokeswoman Alison Eshelman, after a day when 10 flights were stuck on the ground for more than three hours, apologized for the delays.

"The bottom line is that it was unacceptable to have left [the planes] there that long. We were operating under the assumption that we could be able to get them to their destinations and get them to their vacations but unfortunately that never happened. We should have done better."

The problems have already prompted JetBlue to reassess their policies.

"It's JetBlue's responsibility from start to finish," said Eshelman. "We're looking at our operational strategy based on this completely unacceptable experience."

JetBlue's troubles come two months after American Airlines outraged travelers by leaving flight #1348 stranded on the runway for nearly 10 hours in Austin. Since there is no Federal Aviation Administration regulation that airlines have to deplane passengers after extended delays, no laws were broken in either the JetBlue or American Airlines incidents. However, American Airlines has since updated their own policies.

"American Airlines' senior management has reviewed the regrettable events surrounding Flight 1348 and other flights on that day, and has set into motion plans so that our passengers' needs are taken care of should we ever find ourselves again in such challenging conditions," said spokesman Tim Wagner. "While we recognize that aircraft delays of such long duration are extremely rare, one of our first courses of action was to revise our policy to ensure passengers do not remain on aircraft more than four hours on the ground."

Still, the recent problems, as well as the fact that last year 67,000 flights were delayed at least an hour after leaving the gate, have reignited the debate over passengers' rights -- or lack thereof. In 1999, in an effort to avoid any congressional action, the airlines pledged to improve customer service on their own, adopting a 12-point pledge, including the promise to "meet customers' essential needs during long on-aircraft delays."

While JetBlue had yet to launch operations then and was exempt from any guidelines from that time, the airlines' failures to fulfill their promise to passengers is forcing Congress to step in again.

A day after the JetBlue incident, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., announced plans to introduce legislation for a passenger bill of rights to ensure that air travelers are not unnecessarily held on planes or deprived access to basic food, water, and hygiene.

"I've been stuck on the tarmac many times in my travel back and forth to California. Sometimes with the weather and traffic, it's unavoidable. But to keep passengers -- which usually include infants and the elderly -- on a plane for eleven 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."

Boxer's bill of rights would require air carriers to ensure passengers access to necessary services, such as food, water, and adequate restroom facilities. It would also guarantee passengers the right to safely deplane if the aircraft has been on the ground over three hours past its scheduled departure time.

Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chair of the House Transportation Committee, reprimanded the airlines for their poor customer service: "Don't have passengers sitting for six to eight to 10 hours on board an aircraft. That is cruel and inhumane treatment."

William Maloney, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the American Society of Travel Agents, applauds their efforts.

"Unfortunately, there is little to no recourse for air transportation. The federal authorities have assumed all consumer protection rights for themselves and they have yet to pass any federal consumer protection standards for air passengers," Maloney said. "You can't sue them in a small claims court. You have no rights that you would if you bought a dishwasher or a car or something else."

When airlines fail to follow their own rules, it is the passengers who suffer, such as Michael Gast of New York City, who spent six hours waiting for JetBlue flight #1050 to take off from Pittsburgh on Thursday.

"No one knew why we couldn't get off (the plane) any sooner," he said. "There was just no real effort to do that. We just sat there."

Gast believes it is long past time that Congress step in to implement federal guidelines, rather than continue to let the airlines set make their own rules.

"When they de-regulated airlines, America's flying became a nightmare. They are so mercenary and so bottom-line. They have pretty much demonstrated that our comfort is their least concern," said Gast. "When a bus becomes more comfortable than a jet, you're in trouble. That's ridiculous."

Gast, as well as other disgruntled passengers, will be pleased to hear that the airlines' recent struggles may actually help Congress to pass new legislation.

"I think that the airlines are almost guaranteeing it by their recent behavior," said Maloney. "The momentum of public opinion is swinging against the airlines now. It is a time to look at the consumer protection standards and rights of passengers -- and I think they are going to be found to be wanting. Whether you buy something at the hardware store or a transcontinental airline ticket, you should have certain consumer protections."

It is a feeling that passengers such as Gast understand all too well.

"Passengers have no rights," said Gast. "I would ask legislators to re-examine a system that doesn't work at all."

Still, legislation such as Boxer's will be met with opposition from the airlines. "We prefer to be in control of how we compensate our customers," said JetBlue's Eshelman. "We will be focused on adhering to the standards that we already have in place and more strictly adhering to those standards."

In this case, at least, those standards were not enough to get Michael Gast and others off a plane before six hours had elapsed, but at least he eventually made it to New York. Unfortunately, his luggage did not. Gast left Pittsburgh late Thursday night on an American Airlines flight, but the airline lost his luggage.