Friday, March 14, 2008
For those who have kept tabs on the bountiful supply of airline passenger rights legislation over the years, it should come as little surprise that these proposals can be linked to highly publicized debacles involving a minute number of aircraft being stranded for an outrageous period of time. Consider the "textbook case" of Northwest Airlines' stranding of a plane full of passengers for eight hours without food, water, or working toilets in 1999. That notorious incident gave rise to two federal bills: The Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Act of 1999 and the Airline Passenger Fairness Act of 2000. Calling for a wide-range of reforms, including compensating passengers left on the tarmac for more than two hours, the legislation was ultimately set aside in the face of the industry's attempt to self-regulate through the so-called "Customers First" commitment. Inevitably, more delays occurred and when they did, the media were front and center to "inform" the public how "insincere" the airlines really are when it comes to their customers.
As discussed on this blog yesterday, the airlines are now in a heated legal battle over New York's choice to circumvent the federal government's regulatory authority and enact its own passenger rights law. Should the airlines prove unsuccessful in their appeal of a lower court ruling which upheld the law (an unlikely, though not impossible, result), they will soon find themselves confronting a plethora of enactments across the United States with varying standards and penalties. While there is always the hope that cooler heads will prevail and a more coherent framework will be designed to meaningfully address the infrastructural problems which are at the heart of most delays, more public outcry fueled by media reporting may cut such efforts short.
Last week, American Airlines left seventeen aircraft on the tarmac for four hours or more at Dallas/Forth Worth International Airport. Back in January 2007, American had announced that it would abide by a new internal policy not to leave aircraft stranded on the tarmac for more than four hours. According to the consumer advocacy group The Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights (CAPBOR), the incident last week was the sixteenth individual incident involving over seventy aircraft left stranded by American for four hours or more. American had initially adopted the rule in response to its stranding of 121 flights on December 29, 2006. The latest series of strandings at Dallas/Fort Worth prompted CAPBOR to decry any voluntary plan by the airlines to deal with delays as "a recipe for disaster," with American's plan in particular amounting to "nothing more than a PR strategy designed to fool the public and convince the government that mandatory guidelines are unnecessary."
In its defense, American Airlines issued an apology to all passengers involved and offered $500 travel vouchers good towards any future flight on the airline. The airline also noted that severe weather conditions had prompted the delays and that one of its jets had narrowly avoided catastrophe after slush and ice had been sucked into its engine. It remains to be seen what sort of mileage consumer groups such as CAPBOR will be able to get out last week's delays on their route towards more government involvement in the airline industry.