The air-passenger rights movement is on the brink of several major victories. Increasingly during the past 10 years the airline industry has been treating its customers with what many see as disrespect verging on contempt: surcharges and add-on fees are out of control; involuntary bumping is on the rise; chronically late flights have become all too normal. It’s no wonder that travelers are up in arms. But the days of taking whatever the airlines dish out are nearly behind us.
The turning point came last April when a new Department of Transportation (DOT) rule went into effect prohibiting lengthy tarmac delays on domestic flights at large and midsize hub airports. It requires that airlines provide food, water, and working toilets within two hours of delaying a plane on the ground and, after three hours, that passengers be allowed to safely leave the plane.
An Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, with similar consumer protections, was added as an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Act, which has passed both houses of Congress and is now in committee to merge the House and Senate versions. Cosponsored by Senators Barbara Boxer of California and Olympia Snowe of Maine, the bill would give the protections the more permanent force of law, whereas the DOT rules could easily be changed or overturned by a new administration.
Boxer and Snowe bluntly expressed their sentiments about the airlines’ behavior in a joint statement last March: “It has been clear for a decade that the airlines refuse to hold themselves accountable to the voluntary standards they agreed to and that federal action to compel airlines to recognize passengers’ rights is not only long overdue, but the only means available to ensure these rights are protected.”
It doesn’t stop there. Legislation proposed in August by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia would mandate that airlines display all fees and surcharges alongside base airfares. And a new set of proposed DOT rules would, among other things, give travelers the right to cancel a reservation without penalty within 24 hours of purchase and require airlines to update travelers stuck on the tarmac every 30 minutes regarding the delay status.
Not content to leave the movement in the hands of the federal government, a growing number of websites and organizations are stoking the fires of air-passenger revolt, including the Association for Airline Passenger Rights (flyfriendlyskies.com), airlinecomplaints.org, airtravelersassociation.com, and flyersrights.org. The last of these is the brainchild of Kate Hanni, a vocal passenger-rights advocate who in 2006 was stuck on a grounded plane with her husband and two children in Austin, Texas, for nine hours without food, water, or information.
“The airlines have no interest in passengers having any rights,” says Hanni, who has traveled to Washington, D.C., from her California home 87 times on behalf of her 30,000-member organization. Her response to the new tarmac-delay rules? “We’re not even close to being done with this. There are a lot of issues we haven’t even addressed yet.”
The airlines as a whole are understandably opposed to the new three-hour rule and other proposed restrictions, arguing that market forces, not legislation, should drive policy changes. But it’s precisely because of the industry’s reluctance to change that some observers have suggested airlines be reregulated as they were before 1978. However, the Airline Deregulation Act, signed into law by President Jimmy Carter, has had some positive results: airfares are lower (prices have declined an average of 23 percent since 1995, adjusted for inflation); competition among airlines has increased; there is a market-driven impetus to open new routes; and, as a bonus, on-time records are at recent highs. Whether these results can survive in the face of passenger-rights legislation is debatable.
Considering this long and tumultuous timeline, another question presents itself: Why now? Why has it taken so many years for public discontent to transform itself into the current passenger-rights groundswell? The movement had its genesis in a 1999 blizzard in Detroit that stranded thousands of passengers for up to 11 hours in conditions that can only be described as hellish. In the outrage that ensued, the airlines fought off heightened federal oversight with the promise that they would regulate themselves. But that didn’t happen. If anything, conditions grew worse.
“What happened was eight years under Bush, during which time airline reregulation was looked at askance,” says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a trade group. But now we’ve got a new transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, who is an outspoken advocate of passenger rights. How outspoken? When Spirit Airlines announced last summer it would charge up to $45 apiece for carry-on bags stored in the overhead bins, LaHood immediately threw them a verbal uppercut. “I think it’s ridiculous,” he told blogger Christopher Elliott. “I don’t think they care about their customers.”
Other air-travel targets in LaHood’s gunsights: deceptive code sharing, fees to use credit cards, inconsistent customer-service plans, and exceptions to the tarmac-delay rule for non-hub airports and international flights.
“The airlines believe LaHood is in over his head,” says Mitchell, who admires the transportation secretary’s straightforward style and cautions critics not to underestimate him. “I’ve never seen anything like this in a DOT secretary.”
Whether through federal legislation or departmental mandate, the passenger-rights movement is growing stronger, and the only ones who aren’t embracing it are the airlines. Congress is writing laws. The DOT is making rules. The frequent fliers and road warriors are up in arms.
And the rabble has been roused.
U.S. airlines collected a record $7.8 billion in ancillary-fee revenue last year. Here’s a look at how much you could pay—on top of your ticket—when you book with a legacy carrier.
Telephone booking fee: $25
Peak-travel surcharge: $40
Ticket changes (domestic): $150
Standby fee: $100
First checked bag: $50
Second checked bag: $70
Seat selection: $20
Pillow and blanket: $16
Total Possible Fees: $493
Note: Prices based on a representative sample of round-trip charges for domestic economy flights.