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.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
In the United States, 2007 saw some notable contributions to the ongoing squabble over passenger rights on airlines. At the federal level, the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Act was introduced. That act would have required airlines to provide food, water, and adequate restroom facilities to passengers in the case of delays. More controversially, it would have provided a right to deplane three hours after the aircraft's door is closed.
The latter proposal drew strong criticism from the airlines as being a catalyst for further delays. Should a passenger exercise the right to deplane, the aircraft would have to taxi back to the terminal, lose its position in line for takeoff, and further impede passenger traffic at its destination. The bill was merged into the much larger Aviation Investment and Modernization Act which, since its introduction in the Senate in August of 2007, has gone nowhere. The House has passed its own version of the omnibus legislation which inter alia reduces the categorical requirements of the original Passenger Bill of Rights Act, but still requires airlines to provide an Emergency Contingency Plan to the Secretary of Transportation which details how they will provide basic services and an option to deplane after "excessive delays." No substantial action has been taken by the Senate on the House version.
In the meantime, while federal legislation stalled, the State of New York took matters into its own hands by requiring airlines to provide amenities to customers during delays and establishing the Office of the Airline Consumer Advocate to monitor compliance. Under the law-which went into effect on January 1, 2008-air carriers are required to provide contact information for the Consumer Advocate to customers and may be hit with a fine as stiff as $1,000 per passenger for flights which do not comply. Citing preemption under the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA), the Air Transport Association of America (ATAA) filed suit in federal district court to invalidate the legislation. The Association's efforts were thwarted, however. The court reasoned that there is always a strong presumption against preemption except in instances where it is explicitly stated in the federal legislation. The court read the ADA's explicit requirement that "a State may not enact a law.related to the.service of an air carrier" as limited to matters of competition whereas the New York law was concerned with services for health and safety. Since health and safety fall within a State's historic police powers, the court did not find that preemption had occurred. In addition, the court further found that preempting the New York law would not advance the purposes of the ADA and that any concerns over diverse regulation were marginal at best.
Matters appeared bleak for the airlines. Following New York's victory, eleven states-including California, Pennsylvania, and Washington-have contemplated passing their own bill of rights for passengers. Last week, however, the airlines appeared to catch a break as the Second Circuit Court of Appeals seemed ready (based on the tone of judicial questioning, at least) to overrule the lower court and strike down the New York law on the previously cited preemption grounds. While a final ruling has not yet come down, the three-judge panel expressed concerns about a multitude of regulations popping up across the country. While their comments were not unsympathetic to the pro-passenger rights position, their focus on a need for uniformity and worries about preemption are likely to tip the balance toward the airlines. Not willing to see this as a total defeat, pro-passenger rights advocates are hoping that a reversal by the appellate court will spur federal lawmakers to pass their still-dormant passenger-friendly legislation.
Monday, March 10, 2008
Southwest Airlines has been under fire from the Federal Aviation Administration and government leaders concerning aircraft safety. Following a $10.2 million fine which Southwest's Chief Executive said "felt unfair," Southwest's blog was quick to assure readers "that no one is more passionate about the safety of . . . Customers and Employees than we are" and that "the situation being reported in the media was never and is not now a safety of flight issue." And what is the "situation"? According to James Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat and Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, forty-seven Southwest jets were in operation without proper fuselage inspections and seventy had not received rudder-control inspections. Southwest's response has been to consistently highlight its internal safety inspections and to note that the FAA approved Southwest's measures in inspecting its potentially compromised aircraft.
Obesrstar's ire is not limited to Southwest, however. In an official press release, he turned his attention to the FAA itself. Oberstar blasted the FAA for its "lax inspection procedures for commercial airlines." He went on to state that his Committee's investigation of the FAA had "uncovered a pattern of regulatory abuse and that "FAA inspectors have given up reporting failures by the carriers because there is such a cozy relationship between FAA management and airline management."
Over the weekend, The Wall Street Journal reported that the FAA penalty "threatens to be the biggest bruise ever to an industry brand synonymous with low costs, low fares and friendly, reliable service." The FAA is already organizing a special investigation team to audit the carrier's internal safety systems and maintenance oversight. The FAA officials previously responsible for overseeing the inspection of Southwest have been removed from their positions. Another potential source of damage to the reputation of both the agency and the airline is a "whistleblowers report" which alleges that written memos were circulating as early as 2003 warning that Southwest was not keeping up with its maintenance program. The report appears to sustain Oberstar's contention of "coziness" between the two bodies.