Frustrated travelers need a 'bill of rights'


POSTED: Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hundreds of would-be travelers spent hours sitting in frustration at airports last week waiting for flights that were delayed or eventually cancel ed. The frustration might energize a movement for a passenger “;bill of rights,”; even though such measures in the European Union and Canada exempt weather-related causes. Congress should consider such controls.

Four-inch-deep snow prompted airlines to cancel more than 100 flights in and out of Chicago O'Hare International Airport on Christmas Eve, while flights in the New York City area were delayed two to three hours because of snow and ice. Weather conditions forced 300 travelers to spend Monday night at the Seattle and Portland airports because of canceled flights.

But the weather was not the only cause of disruption. Overbooking prompted United Airlines to deny passage to two families Christmas morning on a nonstop flight from Denver to Honolulu. The families were offered full refunds or bookings on a Sunday flight but said that would cut one-third of their vacation time in Hawaii, the Denver Post reported.

United ticket agents ultimately found places for them on a Christmas afternoon flight through San Francisco. Following guidelines of the U.S. Transportation Department's Aviation Consumer Protection Division, the airline also cut the cost of their $1,200 tickets by $800 and put them up at a Honolulu hotel that night.

  Travelers' dismay should prompt Congress to reconsider a proposal to protect the rights of air passengers without forcing airlines into the waiting line for government bailouts. The House approved the legislation in September but the Senate failed to act.

The Canadian parliament enacted such a bill of rights this year. Airlines are required to compensate travelers with meals or hotel rooms after lengthy delays, unless the delay is weather-related, and arrange for them to fly on another airline in case of cancellations.

A similar law enforced in the European Union for years was upheld this month by the EU court, forcing airlines to compensate travelers when technical or mechanical problems or reasons other than “;exceptional circumstances”; result in canceled flights.

Individual states have no control over the issue. A federal appeals court in March struck down a New York law intended to require airlines to give food, water, clean toilets and fresh air to passengers waiting for delayed flights.

A federal task force appointed by the Transportation Department and dominated by the airline industry recommended last month that any guidelines to protect passengers not be mandatory. Its suggestions include updating passengers stuck in planes on tarmacs every 15 minutes even if there is nothing new to report, offering them refreshments and entertainment “;when practical”; and making “;reasonable efforts”; to keep airplane restrooms usable.