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Bill of rights for air travelers still stalled at the gate

Next month marks the second anniversary of the Valentine's Day massacre for JetBlue Airways, which prompted demands for Uncle Sam to take airlines to task for mistreating travelers.

Remember? JetBlue blundered into an operational meltdown during a blizzard at its John F. Kennedy International hub. Customers' lives were turned upside down.

More than 1,000 passengers on nine flights were stranded for hours on the tarmac. Travelers on one plane headed for Aruba were stuck for nearly 11 hours.

The debacle gave momentum to advocates of a federal passenger bill of rights. The effort stalled in Congress, largely because of pushback from the airlines.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, this month reintroduced a Senate version. Supporters hope it has a better chance under a more Democratic Congress and a new president. The proposal would impose these mandates:

• Airlines let passengers safely get off the plane if they have been on the ground with the door closed for more than three hours. Pilots could overrule if they believe the plane will take off or get to the terminal within 30 minutes.

• Airlines provide adequate food, water, restrooms, ventilation and a comfortable cabin temperature if a plane is stuck on the ground.

• Airlines and airports submit contingency plans for handling long tarmac delays to the Department of Transportation or face fines.

• The DOT also would set up a consumer complaint hotline.

The Air Transport Association, a trade group for major carriers, says the number of tarmac delays is going down. The group also contends the three-hour rule would give airlines incentive to cancel flights instead of trying to get out ahead of bad weather.

Travel columnist Terry Trippler argues no one even knows how many flights incur extended tarmac delays. The Transportation Department began publishing numbers last year, then stopped when a consumer group questioned data provided by airlines.

A reader posting on a Wall Street Journal blog summed up the dilemma neatly: "Legislate (airline) service and the airlines will become risk-averse and probably cancel. Don't legislate it and they will continue to argue, 'Let us self-regulate' while doing very little. A real Hobson's choice. Consumer loses either way."

Game on.

Bill of rights for air travelers still stalled at the gate 01/28/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2009 5:39pm]
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