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Air passenger rights is a hot topic in the travel industry, especially as airport and air traffic congestion trigger lengthy delays, but a federal government request for public comment on customer service rules thus far has not drawn a commensurate response. A seven-point proposal from the U.S. Department of Transportation published in the Federal Registeron Nov. 20, 2007 at press time had garnered about 170 public filings, most of them a form letter coordinated by the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights. Interested parties have until Jan. 22 to provide feedback.
The U.S. airlines, represented by the Air Transport Association, objected to a new New York State law requiring carriers to provide food, water, clean air and working restrooms during lengthy tarmac delays, saying only the federal government should regulate commercial aviation. Neither ATA nor any individual airline has yet to formally weigh in on the federal proposal.
For airlines operating scheduled domestic service, DOT is considering whether to:
Require contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays and incorporate them into their contracts of carriage. DOT said those plans would call on airlines to provide "adequate food, water, lavatory facilities and medical attention, if needed, while the aircraft remains on the tarmac." Carriers also would be required to clearly define "lengthy." The proposal also would allow passengers "to sue in court for damages if a carrier failed to adhere to its plan."
Require carriers to respond to consumer problems. This would force an airline "on its Web site, on all e-ticket confirmations, and, upon request, at each ticket counter and gate, make information available on filing a complaint with the carrier," and respond to each complaint within 30 days.
Declare the operation of flights that remain chronically delayed to be an unfair and deceptive practice and an unfair method of competition. A flight would be considered chronically delayed when it arrives more than 15 minutes late at least 70 percent of the time. A carrier would be required to adjust its schedule and/or operations within six months to correct the problem. "Consumers buy transportation in reliance on a carrier's published schedule, and they have a right to expect that the carrier both intends to arrive at the promised time and can do so in most cases," DOT wrote.
Require carriers to report on-time performance of international flightsin addition to domestic operations. As part of this proposal, DOT is considering whether also to require "the largest foreign airlines" to report on-time performance for flights to and from the United States.
The other measures proposed by DOTare requirements for airlines to publish on their Web sites delay data and complaint data--including the number of complaints related to delays, missed connections and failure to provide amenities--and to "audit their adherence to their customer service plans."
The submission from the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights generally supports all seven points proposed by DOT. In some places, it goes further, including the suggestion that flights be deemed chronically delayed when late at least half the time. "In what other industry would it be acceptable to be late 50 percent of the time, let alone 70 percent?" the group asked. "In addition, [we] urge DOT to ensure that loopholes, such as simply changing the flight number and departure time by a few minutes, not be a permissible way of circumventing this rule."
The group also said "third-party reservations services" should provide delay information to those booking tickets over the phone or through online systems. "Airlines should be required to provide open interfaces for Internet applications to access this data from their servers so as not to impose undue costs by third parties," according to the coalition's filing.
Many airlines have their own customer service pledges, but New York State on Jan. 1 said it became the first state to begin enforcing its version of an air passenger bill of rights. It requires airlines to provide onboard passengers with food, water, fresh air and working restrooms on any aircraft that has been delayed more than three hours prior to take-off. The legislation also created an Office of the Airline Consumer Advocate to oversee compliance. Violations could cost airlines $1,000 per passenger.
When ATA filed suit against the legislation, it said a New York court "misinterpreted the law ... ATA's sole purpose in filing this lawsuit was to preserve the principle that commercial aviation is best regulated by one source--the federal government--and not 50 individual states."
After the U.S. Court of the Northern District of New York in December ruled against ATA, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said, "The judge's decision recognizes that deregulation did not give the airlines a free hand to treat travelers so callously, and it reaffirms states' rights to protect consumers when federal officials fail to do so."
Lawmakers in such other states as Arizona and New Jersey are considering similar legislation. Rhode Island state Sen. Leonidas Raptakis (D) said he will introduce legislation that would "ensure that delays don't turn into nightmares for airline passengers" who face delays and "cutbacks in the kind of services and conveniences which airlines once provided."
Industry observer Terry Trippler suggested that any states enacting customer protection legislation would face a backlash from airlines, specifically "changes to any hub operation in those states." In other words, airlines would threaten to cut service to airports in those states and move them to "a friendlier state."
Trippler also pointed to the recourse airlines may take should federal proposals--including versions of air passenger rights bills pending in both the House of Representatives and the Senate--move forward. "The nation's airlines have many treats in their bag, i.e., lucrative routes to/from any state," he wrote in a recent media note. "While an airline can give a state a big economic boost, it can also take away that same boost, and any politician who does not know that will find out in 2008. Forget the House. The Senate is where the airlines will successfully make their case--and where the legislation dies."
DOT's proposed rulemaking also asked the public to suggest other measures to minimize passenger inconvenience. "Commenters should bear in mind the Department's responsibility to strike the proper balance between protecting consumers and affording carriers as much leeway as possible to choose their responses to the rapid developments that confront them in the marketplace," DOT wrote.
Suggestions from public commenters have included limiting the number of standby passengers per flight to cut check-in and security lines; providing sleeping facilities and essential items (baby formula, medical supplies, etc.) in terminals for heavily delayed passengers; limiting how long any given flight can be delayed before it is canceled; and redefining flight times to include when a flight actually leaves the ground and, upon arrival, when the cabin door is opened at the gate, to more realistically measure punctuality.
"The taxpayers have bailed out the airlines more than once," wrote one commenter. "We certainly are not getting our money's worth."
Interested parties can comment by Jan. 22 by visiting www.regulations.govand referencing docket DOT-OST-2007-0022.
Airline Service Commitmentagreed to by members of the Air Transport Association
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