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Published: Saturday, 12/27/2008

Empower air travelers

Lobbyists representing the major U.S. airlines stood in the way of advancing the air-passenger rights legislation

DURING the busiest air travel season, passengers still must leave mandatory traveler rights at the curb. But hopefully the next Congress will pass a national bill of rights for fliers so that next year, flying will come with new protections.

The push for protections began two years ago after some 13,000 passengers, without food or water, were cooped up in planes that circled closed airports or idled on tarmacs for up to 11 hours. Those holiday horrors compelled consumer advocates and the air-travel industries to launch a plan to prevent an encore of the experience.

But while lobbyists, representing principal U.S. airlines, profess concern with recurring airline problems such as lengthy tarmac delays, they oppose efforts to enact mandatory measures on behalf of passengers. And they're the reason that legislation with obligatory rules and regulations advancing air passenger rights failed to pass the Senate this year.

"As of today," Kate Hanni of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights said, "the airlines can keep you stranded indefinitely on the tarmac in a sealed metal tube, and there's nothing you can do about it." The real estate agent and founder of the coalition should know; she was likewise "imprisoned" on a plane Dec. 29, 2006.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.) plans to resubmit a bill to the Senate transportation committee in January. The House transportation committee also wants to revisit and take quick action on the FAA bill that didn't pass the Senate.

The so-called tarmac task force, created by Transportation Secretary Mary Peters after the 2006 travel nightmares, was worthless. Instead of drafting a list of guaranteed rights and fines, the industry-dominated panel merely produced toothless "contingency plans" for worst case scenarios.

The industry argues that one formula for protecting passenger rights would create more problems than it would solve in different airports. Perhaps, but its answer to just try to provide better passenger service isn't good enough.

Without set requirements, including the chance to deplane if tarmac delays extend beyond several hours, intercarrier honoring of tickets when an airline suspends service, penalties for lost luggage, and more transparency into airlines' fare schedules, on-time records, and refund policies, travelers will remain powerless to demand better treatment.

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