Let's hope Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is right when she says her Airline Passenger Bill of Rights legislation is close to passage in the U.S. Senate.
“We’re on the one-yard line today,” Boxer recently told those assembled at an unofficial airline passenger’s rights hearing on Capitol Hill. The event drew both supporters and critics of the legislation, which would force airlines to create plans to deplane passengers after three hours and would require them to provide basic services such as food and water while people are waiting on planes.
Boxer’s tactic – to pitch this as a health and safety issue, not just a matter of inconvenience – is a shrewd political move.
Let’s hope it works.
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Boxer’s consumer protections are in the Senate’s version of the Federal Aviation Administration Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act, a bill that contains money for airports and airlines across the country. Her task is to convince Senate leaders to keep the passenger protections in the bill when it comes to the Senate floor for a vote. Congress has passed the bill. Canada passed a bill of rights for air passengers in 2008 and the European Union enacted similar laws years ago.
It’s time for the United States to follow suit.
Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, said, “now we clearly see it as a health and safety issue.”
“It has nothing to do with inconvenience,” said Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org and the organizer of the event in the nation’s capital. “As long as it’s a health and safety issue it’s got a lot of legs.” She said long waits greatly increase the chances of a blood clot and exacerbate other health problems.
But the inconvenience factor cannot be ignored. These are human beings and they are treated like captives on board delayed flights.
We need only remember back to the holiday rush last year between Dec. 19 and Dec. 28. In that 10-day period, U.S. airlines canceled 9,000 flights, which was up 70 percent from the year before. It means more than 1 million passengers’ plans for the holidays were thrown into disarray.
Granted, severe weather on the West and East coasts and Midwest played a major role in the air travel mess. We all remember the snow and ice in South Sound.
But the airlines were their own worst enemy in some cases. They cut their holiday flight schedules by about 10 percent last year compared with 2007, leaving little, if any, slack in the system. Operational glitches from not being fully prepared for the bad weather didn’t help either. For instance, some airlines ran out of the fluid used to de-ice jet wings to avoid ice buildup and crashes.
For the 10 days around Christmas, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport had the second-worst on-time record for flights of all major airports in the country — a dismal 33 percent, which tied Portland International Airport right behind Chicago O’Hare at 31.9 percent.
Once again, airline passengers were at the mercy of the weather, air-traffic congestion and financially pinched airlines trying to keep their planes in the air.
What has Boxer pushing her legislation anew was the stranding of 47 passengers in Minnesota for six hours aboard Continental Express Flight 2816. That didn’t happen in the dead of winter, but in the month of August. The plane sat on the Rochester, Minn., tarmac after it was diverted because of thunderstorms.
The pilot pleaded with airport officials to allow the passengers to deplane as babies cried and the toilet filled the aircraft with a foul smell. The pilot’s pleas were rejected because Transportation Security Administration personnel had left for the day and there was no security personnel to screen the passengers.
Sen. Boxer said: “This incident reminds us why a well-crafted Airline Passenger Bill of Rights is needed now. People should never be forced to spend the night on the tarmac, held captive on an airplane without food, water and sufficient restrooms.”
Boxer is convinced that incident and her argument about the health and safety of passengers will finally end the stalemate in getting a bill passed in the Senate.
Airline passengers would be well served by passage of Boxer’s legislation.