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The Airline Passenger's Bill of Rights

Know Your Passenger Rights
Air Rage: Readers Speak Out
Airplane Horror Stories
Poll: Will a new bill of rights really improve air travel?

Way back in the last century, during the winter of 1999, Northwest Airlines famously stranded a plane full of passengers on a tarmac for eight horrific hours. Without food, water, working toilets, honest or timely information, or the simple ability to walk off the plane despite being a couple hundred yards from the terminal gate at a major airport, the passengers were subject to an almost inhuman experience in a metal canister.

Sound familiar? That's because the same thing happened again -- twice within the past two months. In December 2006 it was American Airlines, which stranded passengers for eight hours on a tarmac in Austin, Texas, shortly before New Year's while planes took off and landed all around them. Then, during a winter storm on February 14, 10 JetBlue flights were significantly delayed at New York's Kennedy airport -- one for a whopping 11 hours.

You may recall the firestorm of media controversy after the 1999 incident; when passengers sued for "false imprisonment and breach of contract," the media got hold of the story, and well, the rest is history. The endgame was the introduction of a voluntary Customer Service Initiative from the airlines that was supposed to ensure that this sort of thing never happened again -- not that anyone believed it.

Rewind to 1999
I was traveling on Northwest that fateful weekend, and wrote about my experience at length in a letter to Northwest that we published on The Independent Traveler, and that subsequently was heavily forwarded, printed and shared among Internet-savvy travelers.

Granted, the worst of Northworst's (as the airline was dubbed) problems were caused by having a major hub in the middle of a major storm -- but if you read my letter, you'll find that my problems started days before the first snowflake hit the ground. The real problem was much more institutional arrogance that had riddled the airlines from the top brass to the check-in counter -- and not only at Northwest. It soon became evident that my experience was just an amplified, drawn-out version of what many travelers were experiencing at the airport and in the air on an almost daily or even hourly basis; the storm and the media fallout just brought everything to a head.

Hear from passengers and airport and airline employees alike in Air Rage: Readers Speak.

In the aftermath, the airlines issued denials, made excuses and generally CYA'd; meanwhile, consumer advocates railed, consumers told and retold their own tales of woe online and on television, and ultimately legislators started to call for heads to roll, if only to stop their phones from ringing.

With public opinion almost unanimously lined up against them, and the specter of actual legislation casting visible shadows, the airlines quickly went officially into mea culpa mode and produced the supposedly self-governing Customer Service Initiative, a document of cheery promises and pledges that each airline was obliged to draw up and post prominently on its Web site.

As almost every industry pundit and expert noted at the time, the initiatives were in fact little more than a PR-savvy repackaging of the existing airline Contract of Carriage, a document that does its level best to absolve the issuer of responsibility. Sure, it was in nice sugary language, and the airlines ate a bit of crow for effect, but the new initiatives had almost no teeth. The whole thing amounted to Congress forcing the airlines to take a pledge to do better, and when the TV cameras went away, it was business as usual for the airlines, with a few big checks cut to lobbyists and public relations firms. Whew.

Cut to 2007: Like It's 1999
As any mother of a two-year-old could predict, if you don't mean it when you say "no," they'll do it again -- and of course they did. Just before this past New Year's Eve, American Airlines stranded passengers on a tarmac for eight hours in Austin, Texas.

The treatment of the passengers was as predictably heartless this time as well: five hours into the eight-hour ordeal, an elderly woman asked for some food. A flight attendant told her there were a few snack boxes still available and charged her $4. Whoever was calling the shots relented only after it became obvious that a diabetic patient onboard was in danger, and when the passengers were finally released, no assistance awaited them at the terminal or on airline phone banks -- they were more abandoned than released.

Then, on Valentine's Day, a winter ice storm grounded dozens of JetBlue planes at JFK, with many passengers stuck onboard for up to 11 hours. The airline's schedules were disrupted by the storm and it was forced to cancel nearly a quarter of its flights over the subsequent President's Day weekend, leaving thousands of passengers stranded -- and leaving JetBlue in a public relations nightmare.

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