Passenger “bill of rights” legislation is now pending before Congress

In the wake of the highly publicized on-board ground delays that occurred in December 2006 and February 2007, the “Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Act of 2007” was introduced in the Senate on February 17, 2007 and in the House of Representatives on March 1, 2007.  If enacted, the more extensive House bill would require that domestic airlines:

  • “Provide customers at an airport and on board an aircraft, in a timely, reasonable, and truthful manner, the best information available to the air carrier regarding a delay, cancellation, or diversion affecting the customers’ flight, including the cause of the delay, cancellation, or diversion; and for a delayed flight, the air carrier’s best estimate of departure time [by using] airport overhead announcements, on aircraft announcements, and postings on airport television monitors.”
  • “Establish and implement procedures to allow passengers to exit the aircraft in the case of a departure or arrival delay which would otherwise require passengers to remain on the aircraft on the ground prior to departure or arrival for a period exceeding 3 hours” except “if the pilot of such flight reasonabl[y] determines that such flight will depart or arrive not later than 30 minutes after the 3-hour delay; or if the pilot of such flight reasonabl[y] determines that permitting a passenger to deplane would jeopardize passenger safety or security.  A pilot may extend the 30-minute period referred to [above] by not more than an additional 30 minutes in the case of an unanticipated extension of the delay.”
  • “Provide for the essential needs of passengers at all times during which the aircraft is on the ground in the event of a departure or arrival delay, including the needs of passengers for food, water meeting the standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act or the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, as appropriate, sanitary facilities, medical access, adequate ventilation, and comfortable cabin temperatures.”
  • “Publish and update monthly on the Internet website of the air carrier a list of chronically delayed flights operated by the air carrier.”
  • “Disclose, without being requested, the on-time performance for a chronically delayed flight of the air carrier whenever a customer makes a reservation or purchases a ticket on such a flight.  The term ‘chronically delayed flight’ means a regularly scheduled flight in air transportation that has failed to arrive within 30 minutes of the scheduled arrival time of the flight at least 40 percent of the time during the most recent 3-month period for which data is available.”
  • “Publish lowest fare information, and information on schedules and itineraries, with respect to regularly scheduled flights of the air carrier in air transportation.  Information to be published . . . shall be updated in a timely manner and shall be made available to the public on the Internet website of the air carrier.”
  • “Make every reasonable effort to return [lost] baggage to the passenger within 24 hours.”

If enacted, the House bill would require that the Department of Transportation:

  • “Work in coordination with air carriers to ensure that a pilot operating an aircraft in a flight in air transportation that is affected by a long departure delay is permitted to return the aircraft to the airport terminal to allow passengers to exit the aircraft without losing the position of the flight in the departure sequence.”
  • “Review the emergency contingency plans of air carriers and airports to ensure that the plans will effectively address weather emergencies in a coordinated manner.  In carrying out this subsection, the Secretary shall convene a meeting of representatives of air carriers, airports, and the Federal Aviation Administration to develop procedures to better respond to weather emergencies resulting in long departure delays.”

My guess is that a scaled-down version of H.R. 1303 will be enacted unless the airlines can persuade Congress that they have implemented very specific and effective systems for preventing extremely long on-board delays and for making moderately long delays more tolerable.

Any effort to legislate airline customer service changes is invariably accompanied by a push to impose new economic regulations on airlines, such as the H.R. 1303 requirement that airlines “publish lowest fare information” on their websites.  What does that requirement have to do with on-board delays?  In the words of Alfred E. Kahn, chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board in 1977 and 1978 and the chief architect of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978:  “Airline deregulation has worked.  It would be ironic if, by misdiagnosing our present discontents, we were to return to policies of protectionism and centralized planning.”

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