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The National Business Travel Association last month switched its position and now supports federal legislation on airline passenger rights. Two airline CEOs speaking in August at NBTA's convention in San Diego disagreed with the need for such laws, which have been proposed in multiple flavors by the U.S. Department of Transportation and Congress.
The issue has regained a high profile since an Aug. 8 incident during which a Continental Airlines flight operated by ExpressJet Airlines sat on a tarmac for more than five hours (to 6:00 a.m. local time) in Rochester, Minn. DOT cleared the flight's crew of any fault, blaming a representative from Mesaba Airlines--"the only carrier able to assist Continental at the airport"--for incorrectly informing the ExpressJet captain that security procedures had closed the airport to passengers.
"There was a complete lack of common sense here," according to a statement by DOT Secretary Ray LaHood. "It's no wonder the flying public is so angry and frustrated."
Five days after the ExpressJet incident, NBTA issued a press release in which it stated support for passenger rights provisions--reintroduced in January by Senators Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine--now included in the U.S. Senate's proposed Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill. The Airline Passengers Bill of Rights would require airlines during lengthy delays to provide food, drinking water, clean restrooms and comfortable cabin conditions; airports to develop federally approved contingency plans for long delays; and DOT to establish a consumer complaint hotline. It also would require "airlines to offer passengers the option of safely deplaning once they have sat on the ground for three hours after the plane door has closed."
NBTA previously describedairline customer service as "a market-driven issue," saying that "in general, airlines are in a much better position to ascertain what their customers expect and whether certain practices are worth the cost they entail."
In the Aug. 21 press release, then-NBTA president Kevin Maguire said, "Enough is enough. When we've got travelers stuck on planes sitting on the tarmac overnight, it's clear the problem has spun out of control, and legislation is the best solution."
Airline CEOs Oppose Legislation
Continental Airlines CEO Larry Kellnerand Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly both cited safety concerns for their objections to federal passenger rights legislation. Though he accepted responsibility for the Aug. 8 ExpressJet incident and said his airline "clearly has work to do" in supporting flight crews in such scenarios, Kellner insisted that, "unfortunately, if we had legislation, I don't think it would have changed anything in Rochester.
"You have to be very careful with what you legislate," Kellner continued. "In those one-off situations, you don't want the message on safety to be lost. We're not going to put people out on the tarmac when there is lightning. Safety is always the priority. If you need something double checked, then get it double checked. If you don't think it is safe to go, that is your decision."
Kelly shared a similar sentiment. "It happens so infrequently that when that error is made, it is sensationalized," he said. "If there is lightning within a three- to five-mile radius, the ramp closes and you cannot open the door to get people off an airplane. How do you legislate that? Safety has to be the top priority. It is heavily regulated already. I would be concerned about adding other layers of regulation that can't be easily executed and, in some cases, may conflict with safety."
The Three-Hour Rule
According to NBTA, the proposed Senate bill "provides two exceptions to the three-hour option: The pilot may decide not to allow passengers to deplane if he or she believes their safety or security would be at risk due to weather or other emergencies. Additionally, the pilot may delay deplaning up to 30 minutes beyond the three-hour period if he or she reasonably believes the flight will depart within 30 minutes."
The Senate version of passenger protections differs slightly from the U.S. House of Representatives versionpassed in May. The House bill "would allow the airlines to set their own amount of time" for determining when to return airplanes to gates during lengthy tarmac delays, according to Coalition For An Airline Passengers Bill of Rights (a.k.a. FlyersRights.org) executive director Kate Hanni, speaking Tuesday on a conference call with journalists. Should that version ultimately clear congressional conferencing and become law, FlyersRights "would likely have to oppose," Hanni said.
Congress has until Sept. 30 to hammer out a final FAA reauthorization bill or set yet another extension.
Another proposed version of a passenger protections document was proposed by DOT in December 2008. "We are currently evaluating the comments filed in response, and we hope to finalize it later this year," according to FAA deputy assistant administrator Nancy LoBue, speaking during the NBTA convention. "Even with delays down and capacity cuts, events like the ExpressJet incident are still happening and there is concern about that." DOT said its investigation of the ExpressJet incident "will be used to help formulate a final rule that will provide better protection for airline passengers."
Hanni objects to DOT's version because "it doesn't set a clear timeframe, there is no mandate," she said. "But what is even more nefarious about it is they specifically wrote that DOT would not have any approval, oversight or enforcement of the airlines' plans. That does exist in the congressional legislation, in the House and the Senate."
Business Travel Coalition chairman Kevin Mitchell added that "it would be hard for the airlines to sue Congress but relatively easy to sue DOT if they don't agree" with any final rules.
Associations Speak Out
In addition to NBTA and FlyersRights, the American Society of Travel Agents and BTC support the three-hour rule and other passenger protections.
"In the face of continued delays and the evident lack of concrete efforts on the part of the airlines to create a meaningful solution to this problem, it is now ASTA's position that only a congressionally defined standard will compel the airlines to do what they have long-promised they would do in this most basic area of customer service," said ASTA vice president of government affairs Colin Tooze.
"There is an evident market failure that can only be addressed by government intervention," according to Mitchell.
BTC conducted an online survey of 674 travel industry professionals and business travelers between July 26 and Aug. 31. When asked if "airline customer service--broadly defined--improved in the past 10 years," 81 percent answered "not at all." Seventy-six percent indicated they "conceptually support" passenger rights legislation, and 77 percent said they support the rule proposed by the Senate that would allow passengers to disembark after three hours on the tarmac.
Continental a few years ago conducted its own poll of passengers regarding long tarmac delays, according to Kellner. "Close to 90 percent of passengers said, 'No, I didn't like the delay but given the choice between sitting on the tarmac 3.5 hours and then going, or having the flight canceled, I want the flight to go,' " he said.
"A large number of passengers start to lose their ability to cope at the three-hour mark for a variety of reasons," said Hanni, when asked about the Continental poll. "There may be some truth to the argument that some people might want to stay on the aircraft, but I haven't met them."
Mitchell reiterated that the proposal favored by his group and others would give passengers the option to stay onboard or deplane after three hours.
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