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Wed, Nov 19, 2008

DOT Continues To Disappoint Passengers Rights Advocates

NPRM Coming, Based On Task Force Recommendations

Overshadowed completely by President George W. Bush's Tuesday morning announcement of measures to reduce air traffic congestion over the holidays was another announcement by the Department of Transportation (DOT) which is disappointing airline passenger advocates.

DOT will issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to implement the recommendations of its "Tarmac Task Force." As ANN reported, last week the panel wrapped up a year of meetings at DOT's offices in Washington, DC.

Heavily weighted with representatives of airports and the airline industry, the panel's final report recommends no substantive measures be required of the airlines to minimize or mitigate lengthy strandings of passengers.

Kate Hanni, founder and executive director of CAPBOR, the Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights, was stranded with her husband and two sons inside an American Airlines jet, on the tarmac at Austin, TX for over eight hours on December 29, 2006.

Her outrage was a seed which has grown into a coalition claiming 24,000 members, including many airline flight attendants, who bear the burdens of dealing with passengers who may become physically ill or violently angry during tarmac strandings.

In the two years since Hanni's stranding, she has been frustrated as promises from Congress to enact a passengers bill of rights have been blocked in the Senate, where airline lobbyists have significant influence.

Hanni tells ANN she was the only member of DOT's 35-member task force without ties to either government or the airline industry. Not surprisingly, she was the lone dissenting vote in a 34-1 decision last week to release a final report which requires only token attention from the airlines to the needs of passengers in cases of tarmac strandings. Those recommendations are now included in the DOT's NPRM.

At first glance, the NPRM looks promising. In its solicitation of public comments, DOT's published abstract says the rule would, among other measures, enhance airline passenger protections by requiring airlines to adopt contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays and incorporate them in their contracts of carriage, and require carriers to respond to consumer problems.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said of the task force's report, "...this document and the viewpoints of all the task force members should provide a valuable resource to minimize the hardships to passengers resulting from lengthy airline ground delays."

But Hanni notes the language in the report is filled with the same vague terms which make airline contracts of carriage essentially meaningless and unenforceable. In addressing tarmac strandings, American Airlines has contract language which says, "...American Airlines and American Eagle will make every reasonable effort to ensure that essential needs of food (snack bar such as Nutri-Grain), water, restroom facilities, and basic medical assistance are met." In case the undefined term "reasonable effort" is not vague enough to be unenforceable, the next sentence reads, "We are not responsible for any special, incidental or consequential damages if we do not meet this commitment."

DOT proposes that airlines be required to adopt contingency plans to deal with tarmac strandings, but does not define what constitutes a lengthy delay, allows the airlines to write their own plans, and lets them audit their own compliance. The publication of the NPRM in the Federal Register will trigger the start of a 60-day public comment period which will include several major holidays.

DOT reports spending $140,000 to administer the panel, and Hanni's coalition spent another $15,000 covering her expenses to participate. The watered-down result has left her back where she started in January 2007 -- determined to pursue specific legislation to create a passengers bill of rights with the new US Congress and the incoming Obama administration.

Despite early setbacks, Hanni says she still finds reason for hope.

"(Senator) Obama happened to be a co-sponsor of our legislation, of the standalone bill that we had on the Senate side," Hanni said. "Senator Biden had done a press release late last year... about a comprehensive passenger bill of rights that he would like to see passed if he were President. Rahm Emanuel, who's the new chief of staff, is a huge proponent of our passenger bill of rights on the house side.

"So, there is some really good news on the horizon, not only for our airline passenger bill of rights, but I believe for the whole FAA modernization bill. Everything in that bill is going to be good for passengers."

In this brief period of transition, it is difficult to know whether Secretary Peters -- who is no stranger to political hyperbole -- really considered the task force document a "valuable resource," or was simply running with it to get an early start on cleaning out her desk.

Hanni will appear to discuss this story in detail Wednesday, on the Aero News Special Feature audio Aero-Cast.

FMI: Read The NPRM Document, www.dot.gov, www.flyersrights.org

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