Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Passenger Rights Revival

According to a story from the Associated Press, the U.S. Department of Transportation is investigating the seven-hour "stranding" of Continental Express Flight 2816 on a Rochester, Minnesota tarmac last Friday.  See Joan Lowy, Gov't Asking Why Airline Passengers Were Stranded, Assoc. Press, Aug. 12, 2009 (available here).  From the story:

Transportation Department and Federal Aviation Administration lawyers are combing through aviation and consumer regulations looking for possible violations.

"While we don't yet have all the facts, this incident as reported is very troubling," LaHood said in a statement Tuesday.

The incident may also boost legislation pending in the Senate that includes a provision requiring airlines to return passengers to the gate after a three-hour tarmac delay. The provision gives the flight's captain the power to extend the tarmac wait by a half-hour if he has reason to believe takeoff clearance is likely to come soon. The captain would also have the power not to return passengers to the gate if he felt doing so was unsafe.

In other words, attorneys and officials well versed in DOT regulations and applicable federal law realize that no clear violation occurred and yet are committed, for the sake of the media attention this unfortunate incident has received, to spending time and resources (or, at least, claiming to spend time and resources) to take punitive measures against Continental.  Of course, if there were clear regulations on the books to address this type of incident, there probably wouldn't be any apparent need for the passenger rights provision inserted into the 2009 FAA Reauthorization Act, S. 1451, 111th Cong. sec. 401 (2009); cf. H.R. 915, 111th Cong. sec. 407 (containing no mention of the three-hour delay rule). 

For those interested in what the airlines have to say about delays and the infrastructure constraints which are largely responsible for them should consult James May, President and CEO of the Air Transp. Assoc., Airline Delays and Consumer Issues, Statement Before the Subcommittee on Aviation (Sept. 26, 2007) (available here).

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