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In JetBlue's wake, a push for fliers' rights

The Nation

Demand for federal action takes off as the airline deals with delays.

February 20, 2007|Martin Zimmerman, Alana Semuels and Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writers

Thousands of passengers were stranded in New York. Flights were scrubbed at airports around the eastern U.S. But the biggest fallout from JetBlue Airways' monumental meltdown over the last week may land on Capitol Hill.

The travails of the nation's eighth-largest carrier might not be enough on their own to prompt federal action on behalf of air travelers. But JetBlue's troubles come as the airline industry struggles through a winter of discontent punctuated by airport shutdowns, massive flight cancellations and tales of passengers trapped for hours aboard parked aircraft.

The events have mostly been weather-related -- a blizzard in Denver, a thunderstorm over Dallas-Fort Worth, an ice storm in New York. But industry experts say the airlines' response to natural events has been inadequate, making the case for an air travelers' "bill of rights."

"This could very well have reached the point where the federal government needs to set some standards," said Scott Hamilton, an airline industry consultant.

JetBlue Airways Corp., seeking to repair frayed relationships with its customers, said it would offer refunds and flight vouchers to many of its passengers. It also plans to release details today of a "customer bill of rights" to protect passengers whose flights are canceled.

Tim Winship, who runs an air travelers' website called FrequentFlier.com, said the airline's initiative might in part be a bid to head off tougher measures.

"They may very well be aware that the danger of what they've done here would trigger Congress to actually move on this," Winship said. "They're saying, 'We're going to do our own passenger bill of rights.' It may be a way of forestalling a move by Congress doing that from the federal level."

Kate Hanni of Napa, a leader in the push to give more consumer rights to airline passengers, said the JetBlue episode had created a political tail wind for her efforts.

Before JetBlue's problems began on Valentine's Day, Hanni's loosely organized group had collected 3,500 electronic signatures on its website supporting legislation (www.strandedpassengers.blogspot.com). Six days later, the count was up to 11,000.

"This incident has definitely helped the cause," said Hanni, who is flying to Washington this week to meet with elected officials and consumer groups. "This thing is growing exponentially."

Hanni began her crusade late last year after being stuck for eight hours on a parked American Airlines flight in Austin, Texas.

"We just don't trust them anymore, and that's why we have to have legislation," she said. "That's why we're taking it into our own hands."

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has cosponsored a bill that in most cases would limit to three hours the amount of time passengers can be kept waiting on parked airplanes.

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) has said he favors similar legislation in the House and has received support from members of both parties on what is sure to be a politically popular issue.

The industry is wary of mandatory restrictions, saying they would rob airlines of the flexibility they need to deal with changing weather conditions.

JetBlue's problems began when an ice storm blanketed the Northeast on Wednesday. Rather than follow the example of other airlines and cancel flights in advance, JetBlue tried to get passengers to their destinations.

The strategy backfired. The weather didn't clear, stranding much of JetBlue's fleet at its hub -- John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York -- and triggering a chain reaction of cancellations and flight diversions that angered passengers.

"I've never been treated so badly by an airline in my life. Never," said Kimberly Lindsey, a 22-year-old model who was scheduled to fly home to Southern California from JFK on Wednesday. "Nobody knew what was going on. They were completely clueless."

She didn't arrive at Long Beach Airport until Saturday -- without luggage -- and she returned to the airport Monday to learn that her bags were still en route.

Alison Eshelman, a spokeswoman for the New York-based carrier, acknowledged that the company made mistakes.

"In retrospect, we should have canceled flights on Wednesday," she said. "We let our customers down and we let our crew members down."

Passenger criticism is unusual for JetBlue, which is widely regarded as popular with its customers for its low fares and its egalitarian practice of offering a single class of service. It ranked above most of its peers in the federal government's most recent survey of industry performance in such areas as baggage handling, flight cancellations and "bumped" travelers.

JetBlue, which locally serves airports in Burbank and Ontario as well as Long Beach, said it expected to operate its full schedule today after canceling 139 of its 600 flights Monday.

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