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"Passengers' bill of rights gaining steam in Congress"



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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Passengers' bill of rights gaining steam in Congress
By JOE SHARKEY
The New York (NY) Times


Airline pilots tend to be independent, cantankerous and genetically disinclined to welcome additional regulation of their profession, which they already think is overregulated.

So it's probably not good news for domestic airlines that a pilot like Vance Atkinson, 64, who spent 30 years flying for a major airline, is saying it's time for the federal government to do something about the increasing number of passengers being stranded on parked airplanes for long periods during bad weather or other delay-inducing events.

"There is not going to be an easy answer, but a start is to have hard and fast rules," said Atkinson, who retired from a major airline at the mandatory age of 60 and now flies corporate jets. He recommended that passengers spend no more than three hours before being let off a stranded plane.

Airlines desperately do not want the federal government to tell them when they have to cancel a flight full of paying passengers. The domestic system, the airlines argue, is stretched to its limits: planes full, flight crews working to the max, domestic schedules pared down so more seats can be devoted to more profitable international routes. And, the airlines add, the federal air traffic control system is unable to handle current demand.

Further, the airlines say, what if they did unload the plane after three hours or more? With no backup capacity, then what? How long are you prepared to cool your heels in an airport until the next seat becomes available? Days?

You've read the horror stories of the last six months: passengers stranded eight hours in parked planes waiting to take off, often with food and water scarce and toilets overflowing. In one case in May, passengers in San Francisco were stuck on a plane for 12 hours.

We've heard before from Kate Hanni, a real estate agent in San Francisco who quit her job to work full time for passage of a federal passengers' bill of rights. She was stuck on a parked plane for about nine hours last Dec. 29. (The Web site is www.Flyersrights.com.)

>Despite the airlines' strong lobby and financial clout in Washington, the passengers' bill of rights seems to be gaining momentum in Congress.

The legislation basically would require airlines to let people off parked planes after three hours, and set standards for in-cabin food, water and sanitation during long delays.

Easy to say, difficult to do, acknowledged Atkinson, who nevertheless supports the legislation because, he said, "otherwise the airlines will weasel out."

Now, he said, airline management "is rolling the dice" when planes are held for long times on ramps. "They think if they just keep everybody pigeonholed, with a tight grip on, they can move forward when conditions allow."

Atkinson often has to fly commercially to get to his next corporate jet job. "During any seven days, I might get on seven or eight different airlines," he said, not long after he had spent seven hours on a plane for a Dallas-to-Wichita flight that usually takes 50 minutes. The time "included a couple of hours sitting on the tarmac in Oklahoma City," where weather diverted the plane, he said.

As an insider with 28,000 commercial flying hours, he has perspective. So let's hear a few more of his points:

--"Airlines are stretched to the limit, with no excess capacity, both in pilots in reserve and in aircraft available. They're booked to the max."

--"For the public to come out ahead, I think the feds are going to have to mandate that the airlines have an extra amount of capacity — let's say, 10 percent more — and equipment. And the airlines are just going to scream bloody murder at that because of the costs."

--"They often claim gates are unavailable to let people off. Other airlines' gates are often available, but they're going to charge you to use their gates. And, of course, the airlines don't want to have their customers using a competitor's airport facility. So it has to be mandated: If there are gates available, you will use them."

This will add costs in an industry that is only marginally clinging to profitability, in a cut-throat competitive environment where passengers have long been conditioned to expect to fly at rock-bottom prices.

And so we come to what will be the least popular part of Mr. Atkinson’s proposed fix.

“To get back to a reliable system, it’s going to cost more money — meaning higher ticket prices,” Mr. Atkinson said.

Say what?


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