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Death of the Passenger Rights Bill

Remember what you learned in eighth-grade civics class about how our government is supposed to work?A social problem becomes apparent due to outcries from the public and the media, concerned legislators write a bill to correct it, and Congress passes the bill into law. Problem solved.

But here's how it often really works: concerned legislators write bills to correct the problem, get favorable publicity, and then sit down with the parties causing the trouble and decide not to pass any laws after all. The process is called lobbying, and it has made any chance of improved air travel highly unlikely.

Early this year, after Northwest Airlines left thousands of passengers stranded on planes for hours during a snowstorm, and American Airlines pilots staged a massive sickout that left thousands of flights canceled, several bills were introduced in Congress that would have forced the airlines to start giving passengers better treatment, more information about delays, and more compensation for the inconveniences they suffer (bumpings, lost bags).

The main bill in the Senate, sponsored by Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, would have guaranteed a full refund for passengers who cancel within 48 hours of purchasing a ticket (whatever type of fare they paid) and would also have required airlines to disclose information about all available fares (no matter which distribution channel the tickets were being sold through).

The primary House bill, sponsored by Pennsylvania Republican Bud Shuster, called for airlines to compensate passengers stuck for two hours or more in a grounded plane by paying them at least twice the value of their tickets; to offer full refunds to passengers whose flights were canceled for economic reasons; and to meet stringent new federal reporting requirements regarding delays and cancellations.

Both versions would have forced airlines to give passengers more information about why a flight is late or canceled, the status of lost bags, and the availability of frequent-flier award seats; and both would have guaranteed the right to use only certain portions of a ticket (sometimes it's cheaper to get from A to B by buying a ticket from A to B to C—a tactic known as hidden-city ticketing). The Clinton administration suggested that airlines should have to pay bumped passengers twice as much as they do now ($400 maximum).

The airlines argued, of course, that any such legislative mandates would impose major new costs on their operations, diminishing their ability to offer bargain fares to travelers.

Then the lobbyists got involved. In June, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater announced that, after meetings with congressional leaders and Department of Transportation (DOT) staffers, the airlines had come up with a voluntary program of fair treatment for customers—essentially precluding the need for so-called "passenger rights" legislation.

Among the airlines' promises:
• To always offer callers "the lowest fare available for which the customer is eligible on the airline's telephone reservation system."
• To provide "the best available information" about flight delays and cancellations, and to develop "clear and concise" policies concerning the accommodation of passengers delayed overnight.
• To make "every reasonable effort" to return lost bags within 24 hours.
• To support an increase in the airlines' financial liability for lost bags.
• To hold reservations for at least 24 hours before passengers must buy a ticket or cancel the booking.
• To process refunds within seven days for credit card purchases, 20 days for cash (assuming the tickets are refundable).
• To make "every reasonable effort" to provide necessities (food, water, toilets) to passengers who are stuck in planes on the ground for extended periods.
• To tell callers, in some circumstances, whether a flight is overbooked—but only if the consumer asks.
• To respond to customer complaints within 60 days.

Unlike the proposed legislation, the airlines' program contains a lot of vague language—what exactly does "every reasonable effort" mean?—and no enforcement procedures for violators. Slater conceded that the airline promises "fall short in some respects" of the bills, but he pledged that the airlines will be "closely monitored" by the DOT. He also said the DOT will start a proceeding to boost the airlines' maximum liability for lost and damaged bags on domestic flights from $1,250 to $2,500.

Slater singled out eight U.S. senators (McCain, Wyden, Jay Rockefeller, Slade Gorton, Ernest Hollings, Richard Shelby, Frank Lautenberg, Richard Bryan) and two representatives (Shuster, James Oberstar) for securing these promises from the airlines "under the pressure of proposed legislation."

But who's securing whom?We checked Federal Election Commission records, only to find that the political action committees of the five largest airlines (United, American, Delta, Northwest, and Continental) contributed a total of $118,000 over the past three years to the campaigns of those legislators (except Rockefeller, who received nothing).

Joe Galloway, president of the American Society of Travel Agents (which has tried for more than a year to promote the concept of a passenger bill of rights), said the airlines' victory over Congress with their hazy pledge shows "the continued triumph of hope over experience."

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