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Air Travelers Rights Revolution

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.

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