Should we have a global Air Passenger Bill of Rights?

The European Union has an Air Passenger Bill of Rights, Canada has one too, and now the US may get one – but it is still unlikely as the proposed Bill has been defeated before.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration airlines in the United States will carry a billion passengers a year by 2021, and that raises the prospect of even more flight delays and complaints from the flying public.

Representative Mike Thompson a Democratic Congressman from California has introduced an Air Passenger Bill of Rights into the Congress.  Thompson’s bill would make current passenger protections permanent and extend them to everyone flying into or out of the United States. It would require all airlines to provide water, food, working toilets, ventilation and the option for passengers to deplane if there is an extended delay.

The measure would include all carriers flying in or out of the country, including non-U.S.-based airlines.

It’s the third time Thompson has introduced this legislation. The previous two bills failed to get off the ground.

The first measure was inspired by the incident four years ago in which a JetBlue flight bound for Cancun, Mexico, sat on the tarmac at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport for hours. Passengers received little to no information about the situation, they said.

Planes sitting on tarmacs for an extraordinarily long time is not a rare occurrence in the US.  Some examples are: 29 December 2006, 13,800 people on board 138 American Airlines planes were stranded on tarmacs in Texas during bad weather, one of those planes sat on a tarmac for 9 hours and 17 minutes without water, food, or usable toilets. Just after Christmas 2010 dozens if not hundreds of International Flights have been stuck on the tarmac at JFK for upwards of 13 hours in the case of an El Al flight, and many for over 8 hours in the case of Cathay Pacific, Delta Airlines, Austrian Air, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Air Emirates, Iceland Air Express. And then passengers have spent additional days without food, water or access to medicines inside the JFK airport without help.

In 2005 the European Union introduced an Air Passenger Bill of Rights which includes the following provisions:

Denied Boarding
Passengers may be entitled to compensation depending on flight distance and the delayed incurred due to passenger rerouting. Compensation is as follows:
(a) €250 for all flights of 1500 kilometers or less;
(b) €400 for all intra-Community flights of more than 1500 kilometers, and for all other flights between 1500 and 3500 kilometers;
(c) €600 for all flights not falling under (a) or (b).

-Long Delays
Passengers are also entitled to the following from their airline during a long delay
1) In the event of long delays (two hours or more, depending on the distance of the flight), passengers must in every case be offered free meals and refreshments plus two free telephone calls, telex or fax messages, or e-mails;
2) If the time of departure is deferred until the next day, passengers must also be offered hotel accommodation and transport between the airport and the place of accommodation;
3) When the delay is five hours or longer, passengers may opt for reimbursement of the full cost of the ticket together with, when relevant, a return flight to the first point of departure.

Financial compensation for a cancelled flight is due unless the airline has informed passengers of the flights’ cancellation 14 days prior to the flight, or if the passengers have been rerouted close to their original travel times. Airlines are exempt from compensation should the cancellation be due to extraordinary circumstances.

Canada’s bill of rights is even more comprehensive than the European Union regulations and specifically addresses “strandings,” which will allow passengers to deplane after a 90-minute tarmac delay with the option of re-boarding.

Under the new law, Canadian airlines will also be required to provide stranded travelers with updated flight delay and schedule change information, along with meal vouchers for delays of four hours and hotel vouchers for delays of eight hours or more.

In the United States the current policy mandates that the air carrier “provide adequate food and potable water no later than 2 hours after the aircraft leaves the gate…or touches down.”

It also states that a passenger plane cannot remain on the tarmac for more than three hours, unless the pilot determines it is unsafe to move the aircraft. Airlines can face fines up to $27,500 dollars per incident if these rules are broken, but according to the FAA, no airlines have been fined since the new regulations started. The FAA says it’s currently investigating 148 alleged violations of the three-hour tarmac rule.

I would suggest that for any airline to keep passengers stranded on board a stationary plane on a tarmac without adequate food, water and the inability to use toilets for a number of hours is not only positively inhumane but totally negligent.  Airlines, whether they care to admit it or not, have a duty of care for their passengers, and this includes keeping passengers reasonably comfortable.

If there are to be at least one billion passengers carried per year in the US by 2021, that is a hell of a big lobby group.  Perhaps passengers should just jack up, and each time they are kept on board a plane on a tarmac for an unreasonable amount of time start a class action against that particular airline.  The cost just to fight such an action would be astronomical for the airline, and as their actions are all about cost, they may just find it cheaper to treat passengers more humanely than like cattle as they, apparently, do now.

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