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Airline delays renew customer-service debate

February 16, 2007|James Bernstein | Newsday

NEW YORK — Questions about the airline industry's ability to be its own customer watchdog have been raised anew after hundreds of passengers were kept for hours aboard JetBlue Airways' and other airliners' planes grounded at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York by this week's storm.

The airline industry, Congress and representatives of consumer groups have been arguing about the matter since 1999, when Northwest Airlines jets were grounded at Detroit Metro Airport for about nine hours.

Federal legislation was proposed at the time that would have limited how long passengers could be forced to remain in grounded airplanes, but it was dropped after intense lobbying by the airline industry.

Instead, the Air Transport Assn., which represents the major carriers, agreed in 2000 to voluntarily regulate itself, through what is formally known as the Airline Customer Service Commitment. The 12-point plan calls on airlines to offer the lowest fares, to better communicate with passengers, and to "meet customers' essential needs during long on-aircraft delays." The commitment says nothing, however, about taking passengers back to terminals when flights are delayed for lengthy periods.

In November, the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general reviewed whether major carriers were following the commitment.

"Overall, we found the ATA airlines were making progress toward meeting the commitment," Inspector General Calvin L. Scovel III said in a report to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Panel spokesman Jim Berard said Thursday that a movement for legislation might be gaining ground in Congress after Wednesday's debacle. JetBlue passengers sat aboard aircraft as long as 11 hours amid a snow and ice storm.

In late December, severe thunderstorms forced 121 American Airlines and American Eagle flights to divert from Dallas to other airports. Kate Hanni of Napa Valley, who was on one of those flights, contacted others on the plane and formed a group to lobby Congress for legislation that would require airlines to provide specific redress for inordinate delays and other customer service problems.

Air Transport Assn. spokesman David Castelveter said major carriers continued to oppose any such legislation. "Decisions [about what to do in bad-weather situations] must remain in the hands of the airlines and operational crews," he said.

At Kennedy on Wednesday, "There was a meltdown" at JetBlue, said Robert W. Mann Jr., an independent airline analyst and consultant whose wife, Susan, was among those who waited at the airline's terminal.

JetBlue apologized for the incident and offered free round-trip tickets to those stuck on its planes, but Mann said the apology might not be enough for riled customers.

"The industry claims it doesn't need regulation," Mann said. "But until airlines keep these [delays and mass cancellations] from happening again, people are going to force airlines to do something."

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