Air 'bill of rights' on hold

The Baltimore Sun

Airline passengers just can't catch a break. Or can they?

Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to scramble for alternative travel arrangements recently after American Airlines, the nation's biggest carrier, canceled more than 3,000 flights for maintenance checks.

Meantime, Aloha Airlines, ATA and Skybus shut down operations, leaving passengers high and dry. Charter airline Champion Air said it would shut down in the next few weeks.

Amid all this chaos, it was easy to overlook a federal court's ruling last month that overturned a New York law guaranteeing airline passengers a "bill of rights" for when they get stuck on the ground during epic delays.

"We have little difficulty concluding that requiring airlines to provide food, water, electricity and restrooms to passengers during lengthy ground delays relates to the service of an air carrier," the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 3-0 decision. "Only the federal government has the authority to enact such a law."

The federal government has been unable to get any such law off the ground. Legislation for a national passengers' bill of rights, co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, has been stalled in the Senate for the past year.

But that could change.

"Right now, the wind is at our back," Boxer said in an e-mail.

"Airline passengers have every right to expect that they will not be trapped for hours on a grounded aircraft without food, clean drinking water or access to adequate restroom facilities," she said. "We've heard stories of elderly passengers stuck on planes without access to their medication. That is simply unacceptable."

The woman who has been out front in this fight is Kate Hanni, a former Northern California real estate agent who heads a grass-roots group called the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights.

Hanni, 47, was in Washington recently testifying before Congress on how miserable it is to be stuck for hours on a grounded flight with no food or water and with bathrooms that quickly turn into toxic-waste sites.

This was an ordeal Hanni experienced firsthand in 2006 when her American Airlines jet remained on a tarmac in Austin, Texas, for more than nine hours after bad weather caused delays at numerous airports.

"Flying is the seventh ring of hell," she said after winding up her appearance on Capitol Hill. "It's getting tougher and tougher."

For its part, the airline industry wants to keep things just as they are.

The Air Transport Association, an industry group, said the striking down of New York's passengers' bill of rights "vindicates the position of [the association] and the airlines: that airline services are regulated by the federal government, and that a patchwork of laws by states and localities would be impractical and harmful to consumer interests."

But the group's president, James May, testified in Congress last year that the association opposed the federal passengers' bill of rights as it is written.

All things considered, it seems fair to wonder if air travel will ever again be anything more than a prolonged exercise in discomfort and deprivation.

Ray Neidl, an airline industry analyst at Calyon Securities in New York, expects U.S. carriers to lose a combined $1 billion this year and for the red ink to continue flowing as long as oil remains above $100 a barrel.

One problem, he said, is that passengers insist airlines compete on price rather than on comfort or convenience. As a result, the airlines are constantly seeking new ways to economize so they can keep prices low.

This means you now have to pay extra for virtually everything - food, entertainment, checked baggage. What it also means, Neidl said, is that airlines increasingly will focus on their more lucrative business-class passengers instead of the people in coach.

"The guy in the back of the cabin doesn't pay for the flight," he said. "Flights wouldn't exist without business class."

In the future, economy-class passengers can expect fewer flights and fewer available seats. That will translate to more crowded conditions and less flexibility in terms of when people can fly.

Yet as the cost of those seats continues to rise in tandem with oil prices, it is a fairly safe bet that companies flying their executives here and there will pass along the expense to customers, resulting in higher costs for a wide variety of goods and services.

David Lazarus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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