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The Airline Passenger's Bill of Rights

There are undoubtedly a lot of nice people in the airline business, but their goodwill will always eventually be trumped -- or even stubbed out -- by the institutional indifference (some would say arrogance) of the airline industry. For some time now it has been the airlines' world up there, and we just live in it. But remember that the airspace over our country, and the FAA that governs it, are owned and paid for by we the people.

This is no abstract notion. We pay for it every time we buy an airline ticket laden with taxes; we pay for it every time we bail out mismanaged airlines with public money. The airlines know they will be bailed out because air travel is essential to the business of America, but that status comes with responsibility too -- responsibility that the airlines mostly would rather not shoulder. It's time that, at least when it comes to routine and humane treatment of customers, the airlines understand it is our world they fly in -- and if it takes laws to do this, so be it. They certainly have not been able to police themselves.

The airlines have powerful, well-placed and savvy lobbyists, and don't scrimp on campaign contributions; it is interesting that American is the biggest donor of all. In 2005, the industry spent over $60 million on the books in lobbying costs in the air transport sector.

But despite the power the airlines wield in Washington, it almost seems that this time out our elected officials are willing to do something about the problem. In fact, I would say they will be forced to do something about it -- repeating the weak wrist slap they doled out in 1999 likely isn't going to cut it this time, given that Hanni and her cohorts have appeared on Fox, CNN, C-SPAN and all three major networks, and in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal as well as any number of other newspapers nationwide.

Typically the media would tire of a story like this and it would eventually go away, but Hanni is nothing if not persistent -- and her Congressional representative, California Democrat Mike Thompson, has taken up the cause. As the issue made its way to Capitol Hill this week, the battle lines were drawn, with some unlikely allies and opponents.

How and whether a bill might make it into law is not quite certain at present. Airline lobbyists and organizations are lining up against it -- including, somewhat against type, the Business Travel Coalition (lots of coalitions in this game), whose members you might think had seen some ugly flights.

The best chance for the bill appears to be as an addendum to the FAA budget, which the airlines find to be quite nice, thank you; if a bill of rights does ride into law with the budget, they are certain to try to gnaw away at the language until we have just another toothless Customer Service Initiative, this time written into law but no less effective.

What You Can Do
To help stave off these efforts, you might start with signing David Rowell's Petition for the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights. Next, according to polls, the general public is overwhelmingly in favor of a Bill of Rights; a call or letter to your representatives in Congress will help register your opinion when they're called on to face down lobbyists and actually pass a bill of consequence.

As one who has been through one of these debacles, albeit not while imprisoned on a tarmac -- though I have done my time there too -- I understand well how Hanni's righteous anger built up over eight terrible hours in Austin to the extent that she is willing to wage a crusade to save others the experience. Let's give the public air space back to the public that flies -- and owns -- the friendly skies. That would really be something special in the air.

And from the back pages of IndependentTraveler.com, some additional resources:
  • Passenger Rights
  • Air Rage: Readers Speak Out
  • Rule 240: Read It, Know It, Use It

    Go Anyway,
    Ed Hewitt
    Features Editor
    The Independent Traveler

    Photo Credit: Image of Northwest plane appears courtesy of NWA.com.
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