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Lawmakers call for advocate to support airline passenger 'rights'

January 21, 2008

Northwest Airlines flight 1829--stranded on a Detroit taxiway for seven hours with lavatories overflowing and the 198 souls aboard without food or water--has now landed at the Indiana General Assembly.

Two Republican lawmakers have proposed creating an "airline consumer advocate" to resolve disputes and take legal action on behalf of passengers who've endured poor service. The measure also would require adequate food, water and other provisions for those stranded, wheels-down, for more than three hours.

Senate Bill 161 is a response to a growing number of reports of passengers stranded on taxiways since the now-infamous blizzard that struck Detroit in 1999 and left thousands of passengers aboard aircraft for up to 11 hours.

"We've all heard the horror stories," said Sen. Brent Waltz, of Greenwood. "When you board an aircraft, a lot of the rights we enjoy as citizens are curtailed. I think it's important to hold airlines to the highest standards."

While Indianapolis International Airport hasn't made national headlines for the kind of nightmarish aircraft internments that have happened in Detroit, Chicago and New York, Waltz sees the airport only growing in traffic in coming years--especially with the opening of the midfield terminal late this year.

"The goal is to not have a repeat of the situation in Detroit," said Waltz, who sponsored the bill with Brandt Hershman, of Monticello.

The bill is patterned after New York state's "Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Law," which went into effect this month. As with that pioneering legislation, airlines here would be required to provide fresh air and lighting, working lavatories, and food and drinking water to passengers stranded on planes on the ground three hours or more.

The bill would also create an airline consumer advocate office, within the Office of Attorney General, to investigate passenger complaints, assist in resolving disputes, and propose civil penalties of up to $1,000 per violation.

According to an analysis by the Legislative Service Agency, the advocate's office could cost the Office of Attorney General $930,000 a year by 2010. The AG's office, which has 32 vacant positions, estimates that 12 staff members would be required. Some of the operating costs could come through penalties assessed airlines.

But not everyone thinks such a watchdog agency is a good idea.

"I can't think of a stupider waste of money," said Michael Boyd, president of Evergreen, Colo.-based aviation consulting firm The Boyd Group. Boyd is a frequent guest on national news programs decrying industry ills and a critic of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Boyd said that however well-intentioned, such legislation fires in the wrong direction. The bulk of the delays, aside from severe weather, can be blamed on the FAA's outdated air traffic control system, he said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's own data show the "national aviation system" is the leading cause of delays. Though the statistics include the FAA's air traffic control system, they also take into account such factors as non-extreme weather, airport operations and heavy traffic volume.

Boyd estimates that delays cost airlines $9 billion, despite their efforts to pad their schedules in anticipation of problems that could bring delays.

"It is irresponsible, irresponsible, irresponsible for state legislators to make the assumption that airlines do this intentionally," Boyd added.

"This seems to be a bit of political pandering," said Warren Wilkinson, vice president of corporate development at Indianapolis-based Republic Airways. The regional airline company flies more than 1,200 flights a day for six major carriers, including American, Continental and Delta Air Lines.

What's next, Wilkinson wondered aloud--a consumer advocate for hotels, taxicabs, restaurants and other segments of the travel industry?

"Where does it stop and why do they think there's a need to do this in Indianapolis?

"I don't think we need a person sitting in the Attorney General's Office to respond to passenger complaints when, first of all, Indianapolis is not in the position of a New York or Chicago."

Waltz conceded there are many causes of problems for delays and "trying to assign blame on any one of these is probably not constructive." He added that, while a cooperative effort is needed to solve customer service issues, airlines must understand that "the government is concerned."

The Air Transport Association, the trade group for the nation's big airlines, took New York state's passenger bill of rights to court, but lost its first round. The trade group is considering an appeal.

"ATA's sole purpose in filing [a lawsuit] was to preserve the principle that commercial aviation is best regulated by one source--the federal government--and not 50 individual states," the association said in a statement.

Senate Bill 161could give airlines an out due to such circumstances as acts of God, a negligent act of a consumer, or an emergency situation. It wasn't immediately clear whether the measure could conflict with federal regulations.

The U.S. Department of Transportation reported this month that the industry's overall on-time rate was 80 percent in November, the most recent month for which data are available.

At Indianapolis International Airport, 80.2 percent of arrivals and 85.2 percent of departures during the month were on time, according to the DOT.

But two routes involving Indianapolis showed up on the nation's most frequently delayed flights: ExpressJet Airlines flight 2076 from Newark, N.J., to Indianapolis--late 86 percent of the time--and Northwest Airlines flight 669 from New York's LaGuardia, late 80 percent of time.

Tim and Mary Bruce, of Carmel, who were cooling their heels recently at the airport's McDonald's, said other than being overbooked several years ago, they really haven't had many problems with carriers in recent years. And they fly a lot to visit family.

Still, Mary Bruce's first reaction to SB 161: "I think that's wonderful," she said. "A lot of people have claustrophobia. It would get to you."

Her husband, a stocky man, nodded. He doesn't like being confined in narrow airline seats.

"I don't think $1,000 [proposed fine per violation] is enough," said Tim Bruce. "That's pocket change to an airline."

Besides, to the extent airlines are responsible for problems such as delays, think of the consequences, he said: passengers missing connecting flights, relatives traveling to the airport to pick up family, for example. "It's a snowball effect."

Many of the most extreme horror stories involving passengers stranded in aircraft involve weather. An ice storm last February kept several JetBlue Airways planes parked at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport about eight hours. JetBlue said no gates were open to accommodate the aircraft.

The woes of stranded passengers were perhaps best chronicled by a Wall Street Journal report on Northwest flight 1829, in Detroit, nine years ago.

The account told of passengers reporting chest pains and flying into fits of rage and of one woman who lunged to open an aircraft door, only to collapse onto the floor, sobbing.

Food and water ran out. Lavatory storage tanks were full. Mothers ran out of formula and diapers for children. Some passengers said they were careful not to allow other passengers to catch a glimpse of snacks they had in purses or bags, for fear they'd be attacked as they retrieved them.

Indianapolis Airport Authority officials wouldn't say what was on their mind regarding SB 161.

"If the bill does pass in some form and results in impacts to airport operations or management, we would adjust accordingly," said spokeswoman Susan Sullivan.

Faced with a flurry of cancellations and delays, the airport often takes steps such as encouraging retailers and concessionaires to remain open longer.

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