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Passengers demand satisfaction after recent airline meltdowns

Published April 8, 2007 12:14 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's a nightmare plot as awful as "Snakes on a Plane." An airliner loaded with passengers is stranded on the tarmac for hours. Temperatures rise inside the airless jet. Toilets overflow. Food and water run out. The crew says or does little to defuse the mounting anger.

But this horror scene wasn't made in Hollywood. Starting in December, when an American Airlines plane was diverted to Austin, Texas, because of heavy storms in Dallas, a string of similar incidents has played out at some of the nation's largest airports, angering a widening group of travelers from coast to coast who are pushing Congress to enact the nation's first airline passenger bill of rights.

They point to statistics that show that hours spent in planes on the tarmac, the amount of lost baggage and the number of late arrivals are on the upswing, even as projections for annual U.S. traffic zoom toward 1 billion in 10 years. From Salt Lake City International to New York's JFK, they see a system on the brink, and many - though not all - believe that a passenger bill of rights is their only salvation.

"Based on the epidemic number of strandings since December 23 and the apparent complete lack of will on the [part of the] airlines to solve the problem, we need this legislation now," said Kate Hanni, a real estate agent from Napa, Calif., and head of the newly formed Coalition for Airline Passenger Bill of Rights. Hanni was trapped on the American flight in December for nearly 10 hours.

American blamed bad weather. The airline has apologized to customers and offered them vouchers. But Hanni, who will testify before the Senate aviation subcommittee on Wednesday, said the situation should never have gotten so bad. The ordeal ended only after the pilot taxied back to a gate without permission.

"Why would they not let us have a gate in Austin? I went to a couple of high-level policy advisers for some senators and was told they did not want to let us in because if they gave us a gate, they would have to cancel the flight, put us up in a hotel and refund the unused portion of our tickets," Hanni said. "Instead, they kept us out on the tarmac indefinitely. They never canceled our flight; they resumed it the next morning."

Fight for the rights

The passenger rights bill Hanni proposes is similar to legislation introduced in February by U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, after a Valentine's Day snow and ice storm that lashed JFK led JetBlue Airways to strand hundreds passengers for hours and cancel 1,000 flights in an air-traffic mess that lasted six days. In March, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., proposed his own bill to the House of Representatives. Utah's delegation - which regularly flies between Salt Lake City and the nation's capital - is largely neutral, so far.

"The airlines don't want this to happen again, and I'm encouraged by the new policies commercial airlines have put in place," U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch said. "But I do realize that this isn't the first problem we've had with the airline industry, so I'm going to watch this closely to see if it merits a more aggressive approach from Congress."

Yet despite bipartisan support from many in Congress, the promise of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Transportation and hasty action by JetBlue to launch its own bill of rights after the New York debacle, it isn't certain that lawmakers will enact legislation.

The bills are opposed by the airline companies, including Delta Air Lines and SkyWest Airlines, which operate most flights at Salt Lake City International Airport. While the two companies declined to make executives available for interviews, both carriers issued statements opposing the bill of rights legislation.

Pilots and - perhaps most important - even some consumer groups also oppose a bill of rights for passengers, arguing that such a law would end up harming consumers by increasing the number of cancellations and leading to a rise in airfares.

They maintain that poor behavior by the airlines is less to blame for the spate of strandings and lousy service than weather, an antiquated air-traffic-control system and demand by travelers for low fares. They say the situation is getting progressively worse because planes are more crowded than ever.

It's true that to cut costs, airlines have reduced the number and size of planes in their domestic fleets. They've outsourced many flights to regional carriers that have spottier service records. And although the airlines have laid off thousands of front-line workers, leaving them unable to deal with anything but a blue-sky day, a bill of rights isn't the way to go, critics say.

"It's kind of feel-good legislation, but not do-good legislation," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. "It produces more bad results than good results in many ways and potentially can increase cancellations, reduce safety, increase airfares and give one passenger veto power over everybody else on the plane."

In one form or another, the measures would require that passengers be allowed to leave a plane after a ground delay of three hours or more, with exceptions for safety or if the pilot believes the flight will take off within 30 minutes.

Airlines would have to provide adequate food, drinking water, sanitary bathrooms, air ventilation and a reasonable air temperature inside the cabin. Passengers would get frequent updates about the cause and outlook for delays. Airlines could unload passengers from delayed planes without risking the flight's position in line for takeoff. Airlines would be required to return lost baggage within 24 hours. Although penalties aren't spelled out at this point, presumably they would be financial.

Industry 'gone awry'

The support for a passenger bill of rights seems rooted in the view that the airlines offer a service. If a retailer provides poor service or a defective product, the consumer is compensated with no questions asked. Airlines, by contrast, somehow get a pass, their critics say.

"A lot of flying [hassles] you can forgive as being part of, they've got a hard job, weather conditions, whatever. But in my case, they kind of lied to us as to what was going on," said Mark Long, president of Hollywood FotoFix in Lehi.

Long is an advocate of a passenger bill of rights because of an incident while he was traveling on business in January 2006. He boarded a Continental Airlines commuter plane at Newark Liberty International Airport for a short flight to Baltimore. Bad weather prompted the pilot to taxi the plane to a de-icing station. Long said de-icing fluid was accidentally sprayed into an engine, knocking it out.

Passengers sat in the plane for more than six hours without food or drink or any word from the crew until the flight was canceled, Long said.

"It was just totally miserable."

When the 45 passengers finally were allowed to get off, a Continental agent refused to give them vouchers for hotel rooms or accept responsibility for helping them while they waited for another flight, Long said. And when passengers complained loudly, the agent called airport police, who told them to leave. Long took a taxi to a hotel, paid $165 for a room and got less than four hours of sleep before returning to the airport.

"It's an industry that's gone awry. I can't think of another one, other than the cable [TV] companies, that is as customer-insensitive and is as ridiculously anal," Long said.

After the JetBlue meltdown at JFK, Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters called for an investigation. She ordered the department's inspector general to examine airlines' policies on extended delays and tell her what the government could do to prevent future collapses.

"I have serious concerns about airlines' contingency planning that allows passengers to sit on the tarmac for hours on end. It is imperative that airlines do everything possible to ensure that situations like these do not occur again," Peters said in a statement. A probe by Calvin Scovel is under way.

Bus service for bus fares?

Critics of a bill of rights for passengers say the American and JetBlue episodes have unmasked deeper problems with the nation's air-traffic-control system that the proposed legislation won't fix.

"What happened in New York and Austin and a few other [places] where there was extreme weather is extremely isolated," said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group for major U.S. carriers. Three out of four delays are driven by weather, he said.

"How do you hold an airline accountable for matters beyond its control like weather, for delays that are longer than they should be, given the fact that we have an air-traffic-control system designed in the 1930s?" Castelveter said.

The speed of the current radar-based system forces controllers to keep at least three miles between aircraft. When bad weather moves in, controllers add more distance for safety reasons. That cuts the number of planes in the air and causes planes on the ground to stack up.

Castelveter said a satellite-based system would give controllers and pilots a picture of the airspace that is updated faster and would permit more planes to fly closer together in the air and reduce takeoff times on the ground.

The airlines association and the Federal Aviation Administration say the United States should adopt satellite systems similar to those in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. Even Mongolia has a satellite-based air control system, Castelveter said.

"It's not impossible to improve customer service. American and JetBlue have changed their operating procedures based on what happened in Austin and New York. But those are so rare, given the millions of flights that operate in bad weather, that we don't find there to be a need for legislation," he said.

David Stempler, who directs the Air Travelers Association, maintains Congress is incapable of crafting a bill of rights law that doesn't spawn unintended consequences. If an airline cancels long-delayed flights, it loses revenue and might recoup it by raising ticket prices. Keeping every plane fully stocked with food and drink, no matter how short or long the flight, might also lead to higher ticket prices. And because airlines have been reducing the number of seats they fly in recent years, it might be days before stranded passengers could be rebooked, he said.

"It's a combination of an antiquated air-traffic-control system and the ability to deal with weather," Stempler said. "But the other big fault is with us, the passengers. We want to pay bus fares for our airline flights. So now we're getting bus service. "We shouldn't be surprised by that. We're getting what we paid for."

Instead of a bill of rights law, the best fix for the airline industry's shortcomings should be market forces, many experts say.

"The market will adjust and react to bad customer service just like they react to bad prices," said C.A. Howlett, senior vice president of public affairs for US Airways. "We can cite you our own experiences historically in which we've provided some bad customer service over a period of time and people booked away from our airline."

Howlett said JetBlue's response to the New York disaster shows why no airline wants to inconvenience customers to the point they call for government action. Days after the incident, JetBlue CEO David Neeleman issued an anguished apology to customers and vowed employees would have the necessary resources to handle future weather challenges.

"The cost associated with what JetBlue did, and the bad public relations, is more than enough to get an airline to fix the problem," Howlett said. "So our view is we ought to let the market fix it."

pbeebe@sltrib.com

Passengers want right to ...

Get off the plane after any ground delay of three hours or more. Exceptions are:

* Pilot will allow two 30-minute exceptions, if departure isn't later than 30 minutes after the delay.

* Pilot determines if permitting a passenger to deplane would jeopardize safety or security.

Be comfortable with amenities such as adequate food, drinking water, sanitary facilities, air ventilation and reasonable cabin temperature onboard.

Be told about delays at the airport and aboard the aircraft. Passengers are updated on what the cause and timing problems are.

Display detailed information at the time of ticket purchase about whether a particular route is chronically delayed or canceled.

Retrieve baggage within 24 hours, if possible.

Have the Passenger Bill of Rights that is drafted by airlines displayed prominently to passengers.

Know the lowest fare by having it made readily available to the traveling public by the airline.

Sources: U.S. Department of Transportation; Federal Aviation Administration