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Congress Introduces Airline Passenger Bill of Rights

February 23, 2007 at 5:03 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A string of recent weather-related flight delays and cancellations have lifted efforts to create a passengers’ bill of rights that could provide new protections for stranded air travelers.

A Valentine’s Day ice storm last week forced hundreds of passengers on JetBlue airways to wait on the tarmac for up to 11 hours at New York’s JFK Airport. The low-cost airline ultimately canceled 1,100 flights, including all of those in and out of 11 airports last Saturday.

While rare in scale, JetBlue’s experience was not isolated. Last December, an American Airlines jet was stranded on the tarmac for eight hours in Austin, Texas. Another high-profile mishap came in January 1999, when passengers were stuck on a Northwest Airlines jet for seven hours after landing in Detroit.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, planes carrying the nation’s 658 million air passengers in 2006 arrived late almost 23 percent of the time; that was up from 20 percent in 2005.

The bulk of last year’s delays were related to the volume of air traffic and related issues, late-arriving aircraft, or airline-specific issues, such as maintenance and baggage. Only about 1 percent of all arrivals in 2006 were delayed because of weather or security issues.

For its part, JetBlue has initiated compensation efforts for thousands of customers affected last week, but three members of Congress are promoting similar versions of a passenger’s bill of rights.

Among the major provisions, the different proposals would: allow passengers to de-plane after three hours’ delay; and require airlines to provide food, water, and clean bathrooms for delayed passengers.

But the industry’s trade group, the Air Transport Association of America, has already come out against such proposals, advocating closer voluntary self-scrutiny. In a statement yesterday, its president said, “A rigid, national regulation would be counterproductive and could easily result in greater passenger inconvenience.”

That is a familiar message from the airlines, who have helped efforts to defeat other passenger rights measures in the past.

Need for a federal bill?

David Rowell
Travel Insider
Now we have more people traveling than ever before. We have fewer airline staff than ever before. We've had airline service cutbacks. We now have a terrible traveling experience more of the time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, two perspectives on the proposals for a passenger bill of rights. We're joined by David Rowell, publisher of the weekly newsletter and Web site Travel Insider. He compiled his own bill of rights based on customer feedback he has received.

And Janet Libert, editor of Executive Travel Magazine, a publication for frequent business travelers.

Thank you both for being with us. David Rowell, to you first, should there be a federally mandated passenger bill of rights?

DAVID ROWELL, Travel Insider: Judy, the figures that were quoted just now tell part of the story, and any frequent flyer knows they're very true. Air travel these days is horrible, and it's getting worse.

The second part of the story is where we disagree. Plainly, something needs to be done about this. And, equally plainly, the airlines are not doing anything about it themselves.

They say, "Trust us, we'll do it ourselves." They say competitive pressures will force us to be better. But none of this has happened. So, yes, we do need a federally mandated, consistent airline passenger bill of rights.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Janet Libert, the argument is, if the airlines aren't doing it themselves, so the federal government needs to step in?

JANET LIBERT, Executive Travel Magazine: You know, we all agree the government, the passengers, the airlines themselves, that the number-one priority is the flying public.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our apologies to Janet Libert, our apologies. We're having some audio difficulties with Ms. Libert, and we're going to try to get those straightened out.

But while we wait, I'm going to come back to you, Mr. Rowell. Let me ask you to be a little more specific. When you say the airlines haven't been doing this on their own, I believe they would argue that they've gone years -- in fact, we mentioned between 1999 and last December, now February -- when they have flown billions of passengers without these kind of major problems, so they're saying this is an anomaly, this is unusual.

DAVID ROWELL: Well, if we look back to 1999, at that time, the airlines said, "Trust us, we can self-regulate." And they created this customer charter of rights, and they even put up a special Web site that gave vague promises of what they would do if things went wrong.

That Web site, incidentally, is no longer up there. It's just disappeared with the passing of time.

Since 1999, we all know that air travel decreased greatly from 2001. And for a while, there just wasn't any need for this because there were no problems. The system wasn't being overstressed.

Now we have more people traveling than ever before. We have fewer airline staff than ever before. We've had airline service cutbacks. We now have a terrible traveling experience more of the time. We need something to restore value and fairness.

Priority is customer service

Janet Libert
Executive Travel Magazine
You know, actually, overall, if you look at the statistics, 75 percent of an airline's delays on outgoing is due to weather, and 25 percent is to the other reasons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, I believe we have Janet Libert's audio worked out. Sorry about that, Ms. Libert. The point Mr. Rowell was just making is that the airlines have not held up their end of the bargain.

JANET LIBERT: You know, I think that we all agree that the number-one priority, better customer service, is something that airlines, passengers and the government all want. The question actually becomes is, who can actually do it the best? Is it a government agency, or is it the individual airline itself?

Airline travel is comprised of so many moving parts that interact and so many variables, weather, air-traffic control, security. So looking at who can do it the best, in reality, it's the airline, in the sense that they have professionals, they have pilots, and flight crews, and airline operations that really can look at it individually as opposed to looking at a one rule that really doesn't fit every situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, you mentioned weather, but I believe in the statistics we cited from the federal transportation agency, they were that less than 1 percent of all arrivals that are delayed are due to weather.

JANET LIBERT: You know, actually, overall, if you look at the statistics, 75 percent of an airline's delays on outgoing is due to weather, and 25 percent is to the other reasons.

And so weather actually is what an airline operations center is very most concerned about, and that's knowing the weather will allow an airline to cancel its flights in advance, and actually determine whether an aircraft can actually get to the jet way to take off, if there's a break in the weather.

Airline accountability

David Rowell
Travel Insider
But also, we've seen that competition isn't working. So what if there's two or 25 different airlines? They're just not doing it well enough; they need some additional incentives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, that's not something we're going to be able to clarify right now, but we do want to try to straighten that out eventually.

But to get back to you, Mr. Rowell, you hear what Ms. Libert is saying, that some of this is just inevitable, it's going to happen. You've got more people flying; you do have severe weather problems every once in a while.

DAVID ROWELL: Yes, I'm not suggesting that we should micromanage the airlines. All my proposed customer bill of rights would do is create consequences when the airlines themselves, doing whatever they know best, mess up.

At present, the airlines have no consequence when they do something wrong. They have no incentive to lift their act. The passenger bill of rights would require them to do better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what -- can you give us a specific?

DAVID ROWELL: Yes, and we're not just talking about flight delays. We're talking about other things, like luggage delays, luggage loss, as well.

But to look at the flight thing, because it's easily understood, currently an airline can cancel a flight for whatever reason it chooses. And we would say that, well, if you're going to cancel that flight, depending on what you do to protect the people on other flights, you need to pay them some sort of compensation. And at present, they're not obliged to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm sorry. Ms. Libert, shouldn't airlines be held accountable, as Mr. Rowell is saying?

JANET LIBERT: You know, absolutely. And the airline itself, its number-one goal is to get its customers from Point A to Point B. There are 25 airlines in the U.S. today. And truly we have a choice. As the flying public, we have a choice on whether to fly this airline or that airline. And if an airline is really not serving its customers in the best possible way, you have a choice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that, Mr. Rowell? I mean, it is the case, if people don't like the way they're being treated by Airline X, they can stop flying that airline.

DAVID ROWELL: Well, many of us live in fortress hubs where one airline dominates. I certainly know I don't have a choice of 25 airlines when I choose to travel somewhere myself. I think very few others of us do, as well.

But also, we've seen that competition isn't working. So what if there's two or 25 different airlines? They're just not doing it well enough; they need some additional incentives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ms. Libert, go ahead.

JANET LIBERT: Well, I think what we're going to see now, in terms of that competition, is that airlines are really going to be right up front and center, doing their own customer service commitments.

The customer service experience is very important to the passengers. We all agree on that. And the airline that can do it best really then beats out his competitor. And it's a very, very competitive industry, the airline industry.

I think another interesting point is to look at the European Commission. They themselves, in 2005, created a passenger bill of rights. And what ended up happening, after lots of time and effort on it, is that the bill of rights really have so many exclusions, it's not a viable document that really does help the passenger.

Too many regulations?

Janet Libert
Executive Travel Magazine
So I think the big picture is: Who can serve the customer the best? And it's really the airline who's got the frontline position on it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask you about safety considerations, Mr. Rowell. Some have pointed out that, if you try to impose too many regulations, rules and regulations on the airlines, that they might be incented, if you will, feel there is some incentive to cut corners when it comes to safety.

DAVID ROWELL: Yes, this is sort of the third rail of airlines, isn't it, talking about safety? Let's understand a couple of things here.

The first one is that flying on a plane is extraordinarily safe right now. Fewer people died on planes in the last, shall we say, 10 years than died in their sleep last night. Flying on planes is very, very safe.

Secondly, if you've ever seen the manuals of regulations that airlines are forced to comply with at present, we're talking about feet and feet and feet of manuals. The airlines are already snowed under by regulations, and they don't compromise safety because of these.

No prudent airline ever chooses to compromise on safety. I think that this is just an excuse; it's not a valid reason.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you say they're snowed under by regulations, but you think that there should be additional regulations?

DAVID ROWELL: Well, no, these would not be regulations. We're not looking at requiring new government bureaucracy, oversight bodies, anything like that. We would just simply state: These are our rights as passengers.

If an airline loses our bags, this our right. If an airline cancels our flight, if the flight is delayed, this is what we stand to expect from the airline. And then, if the airline doesn't comply, we give another right. At present, you can only sue an airline in federal court.

I'm sorry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was going to say, Ms. Libert, brief last word here?

JANET LIBERT: You know, really, truly the question is: Who can serve the customer the best? Who knows the individual experiences and the individual, you know, flights? And it's the airlines.

So I think the big picture is: Who can serve the customer the best? And it's really the airline who's got the frontline position on it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we are going to leave it there. Janet Libert, thank you very much. David Rowell, thank you.

JANET LIBERT: Thank you.