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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Airline Industry trying to kill new Passenger Rights law

AIRLINE PASSENGERS going through New York now have something other put-upon travelers around the country don't have: a bill of rights. The airline industry wants to kill this first-in-the-nation law. It has only itself to blame for being in this position.

The New York law sprang from the horrendous events of last Valentine's Day. That's when a freak ice storm wreaked havoc on New York-area airports, and some passengers were trapped on airplanes for up to 10 hours with no water, food or working bathrooms. Airlines canceled flights by the hundreds and stranded thousands of people. What made matters worse was the lack of information from the carriers.

Congress was indignant and promised action that has yet to come. Just before Thanksgiving, the White House called on the airlines "to adopt legally binding contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays." JetBlue, which failed miserably on that frosty February day, and some other airlines have done so. But not all of them have. Enter the Empire State.

If a flight is delayed three hours or more at John F. Kennedy or LaGuardia airports, the law requires the airlines to make fresh air, lights, functioning restrooms and "adequate food and drinking water" available. The law creates an airline consumer advocate office, which would investigate complaints. The state attorney general can slap the airlines with a penalty of up to $1,000 for every violation verified by the new watchdog. The Air Transport Association, whose membership hauls 90 percent of the passenger and cargo traffic in the country, has sued, arguing -- not illogically -- that airline regulation is a federal job.

The airlines find themselves facing regulation because they have not lived up to their promises to hold themselves accountable. Flight delays last year were the worst since records started being kept in 1995. The numbers of lost, damaged, stolen or delayed bags were at record levels also. Complaints from the public were up almost 40 percent between November 2006 and November 2007. Government micromanagement of airline operations is far from ideal. But it's hard to drum up much sympathy for the industry.

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