Posted by: Jerry Garrett | November 27, 2009

Ho ho ho! Feds Fine 3 Passenger-Stranding Airlines

The most heart-warming story I’ve read so far this holiday season is the one about the federal government fining three airlines a total of $175,000 for their role in leaving a planeload of passengers stranded on a runway all night.

How apropos, as the busiest air travel days of 2009 loom.

“I hope that this sends a signal to the rest of the airline industry,” said Ray LaHood, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation secretary. “We expect airlines to respect the rights of air travelers.”

Hear, hear! Long overdue! But this begs the question: What are the rights of air travelers?

Fact is, air travelers don’t have many rights. And efforts to give them some have been stymied for years. Congress is supposedly considering the final wording of passenger rights provisions in a bill that deals with funding for the Federal Aviation Administration (read entertaining press releases here about airline, airport and air traffic control malfeasance). Congress would do well to consult the clear, easy-to-understand, basic provisions of Europe’s passenger rights laws, which have been in effect (without causing financial hardship for the airlines affected) since 2005.

But the airline industry is working diligently to water down any U.S. legislation to something akin to light beer. They are arguing over things like whether people stuck on planes should be allowed to get off after three, or four, hours. Why put people on planes that aren’t leaving, in the first place? Why keep them on planes that have arrived?

If new laws are enacted – even something with baby teeth – don’t expect the airlines to honor even the most basic rights; for the past decade, they have routinely ignored the provisions of the Air Transport Association’s Customer First service agreement of 1999 that 14 airlines pledged to honor. Airline service and customer treatment by the airlines was supposed to improve; do you honestly feel that it has? (Check out the YouTube video, “United Breaks Guitars”, below, which has been viewed nearly 6 million times to date.)

Is it any better today than it was when Northwest Airlines was accused of “imprisoning” a planeload of passengers for 11 hours during the Blizzard of 1999?

Is it better than it was on Valentine’s Day in 2007 when Jet Blue cancelled 71 flights due to bad weather, and left some passengers on grounded planes for up to 11 hours?

The 51 passengers trapped overnight last Aug. 7 on a Continental Express flight diverted to Rochester, Minn., would likely agree that service is no better. In their case – for which the recent fines were levied – service is appalling as ever. Someone at the Rochester airport inaccurately told the plane’s pilot that passengers couldn’t deplane there because there were no security screeners on duty. Come on! You get screened when you get on the plane, not off. The plane was headed to nearby Minneapolis airport, and certainly could have been provided bus or public transportation there, if needed.

Or if anyone at any of the three airlines involved – Mesaba, ExpressJet and Continental – had felt an obligation to care for passengers’ rights. Clearly they did not. They have nothing to motivate them to do so, other than common decency.

This reminds me of the old Chevy Chase skit about The Phone Company: “We don’t care, because we don’t have to.”

Isn’t it time the airlines were made to care?

Jerry Garrett

November 27, 2009

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