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Skepticism greets air passenger bill of rights

February 24, 2007|Martin Zimmerman | Times Staff Writer

Do airline passengers really need a bill of rights?

Recent incidents in which travelers were left stranded for hours on parked airplanes have led to proposals in Congress for time limits on ground delays. But skeptics say the proposals could result in even longer waits and more canceled flights.

"Be careful what you wish for," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Assn., a Washington-area lobbying group. "After three hours, they'll bring the plane back to the terminal, but then the flight might be canceled and you can't get to your destination."

And that prospect concerns travelers such as Lorna Davie, who sat in a parked JetBlue Airways jet for five hours during that airline's recent operational meltdown.

"It's a tough call," said Davie, who lives in Stamford, Conn. "People should be given the choice to get off the plane, but then you have to taxi back and let them get off, and those who want to continue on with the flight are further inconvenienced."

Calls for a federal law that would prevent airlines from keeping passengers on grounded planes indefinitely grew louder after a Valentine's Day ice storm shut JetBlue's New York hub. That resulted in some planes loaded with passengers sitting on taxiways and tarmacs for as long as 10 hours.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced a bill, dubbed the airline passenger bill of rights, that would give passengers the option to return to the airport terminal after three hours. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) plans to introduce a similar bill next week.

Backers say legislation is needed to prevent a repeat of the JetBlue debacle, as well as a similar incident Dec. 29, when dozens of American Airlines flights were stranded on the ground for hours in various cities after thunderstorms shut down Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

But some believe that setting a three-hour deadline could set off a ripple of unforeseen consequences.

Lengthy ground delays typically occur during severe weather, which can ground dozens of airplanes at a single airport. Planes have to wait in line for takeoff once the weather clears, and any plane that returns to the terminal loses its place and must, in effect, start over at the back of the queue.

The hours that commercial pilots can spend in the cockpit are strictly regulated. If time spent taxiing back to the gate or idling at the end of the takeoff line pushes a crew past its allotted duty hours, a new flight crew has to be brought in or the flight will be canceled.

"Once you get out of line, you've got to go to the end of the line," said Vivian Lee, an airline analyst with Alliance Capital Management in New York. "Should all of the passengers on the plane be at the mercy of the person with the least amount of patience?"

Of the 121 American Airlines flights that were diverted Dec. 29, 47 planes that were on the ground for three hours or more eventually made it to Dallas-Fort Worth that night. Had the three-hour time limit been in effect, many of those flights probably would have spent the night at other airports.

For these reasons, the airline industry is pushing a proposal that would allow airplanes that have to return to the terminal after three hours to resume their original place in the takeoff queue.

Kate Hanni, the Napa, Calif., resident who is spearheading the grass-roots campaign for a passenger protection bill, fears that the industry is trying to derail meaningful consumer regulation in the same way it did in 1999, after the stranding of a Northwest Airlines flight on the ground in Detroit for several hours sparked a similar furor.

"Somehow, we have to keep the consumer at the forefront of the issue," said Hanni, who sat on an American Airlines flight in Austin, Texas, for eight hours Dec. 29.

Hanni's group, the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, has collected more than 13,000 signatures on its online petition, and she is hopeful that Congress will adopt a law that goes beyond the three-hour time limit to include such measures as a committee to investigate customer complaints.

To ease concerns about safety and ensure a measure of pilot flexibility, the bill co-sponsored by Boxer and Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) would allow exceptions to the three-hour time limit if safety or security was an issue or if the pilot determined that the flight would be allowed to take off within 30 minutes.

Thompson said he also was conscious of concerns about a ground-delay deadline. "We certainly don't want to cause flights to be unnecessarily canceled," the congressman said Friday. "However, it's important that passenger are not held on planes for hours on end."

The legislation could have broad appeal on Capitol Hill, observers say, because members of Congress are frequent fliers and are all too familiar with flight delays. In addition, the subject of passenger rights is one that many voters can relate to.

"The airlines are a great target for Congress," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which lobbies on behalf of business travelers and opposes the Boxer bill. "Passengers love it. Constituents love it."


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