Tale of Marooned Passengers Galvanizes Airline Opponents

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2007

Valentine's Day was no lovefest for some airline passengers and JetBlue Airlines.

Hundreds of travelers spent Wednesday crammed inside JetBlue planes stranded on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The most unfortunate were stuck for 10 hours without food during an ice storm that slowed operations to a standstill.

The airline has acknowledged its mistake and offered free trips to those who were affected, hoping to blunt the long-term impact.

The incident is the latest example of the poor service that many travelers think is becoming routine on U.S. airlines. But passengers facing chronic flight delays, near-record amounts of lost luggage and declining food options are complaining less. Last year, they filed a little more than 8,000 service complaints, down from about 20,000 in 1999, even though one in four flights arrived late or not at all and 4 million bags were lost, stolen or misplaced.

"People have become somewhat resigned," said Kate Hanni, who is spearheading efforts to reform airline services.

The JetBlue incident echoed one that affected Hanni and other passengers on Dec. 29 when an American Airlines flight was stuck for eight hours at a Texas airport. She hopes the latest brouhaha will help customers overcome their acceptance of airline conditions.

"We believe we have hit the tipping point. . . . Now that this event has happened, it has reinvigorated people's knowledge and understanding of what can happen on an airline," Hanni said.

JetBlue's problems began when the carrier tried to get a flurry of flights out of the airport during the storm. But the planes were left at a de-icing station for hours. Meanwhile, other planes landed and took gates at the terminal. Gridlock soon ensued.

Before airline employees could round up buses to bring the passengers back to the terminal from the marooned jets, some travelers had been stuck on planes without food for 10 hours, the airline acknowledged. JetBlue apologized and said it will refund money paid for tickets and give travel vouchers to the passengers.

Congress debated what, if anything, could be done to alleviate service problems after similar incidents 1999 and 2000. At the time, passenger advocates used the plight of passengers stuck on a Northwest Airlines jet for eight hours during a snowstorm in their campaign for reforms. A passenger bill of rights was debated but not enacted.

The airlines agreed to hold themselves to stricter customer-service standards. But their performance has not stopped slipping.

They have cut spending on food by 30 percent since then, federal statistics show. They have slashed payrolls. Their on-time performance has dropped for five years in a row, though it is still better than in 2000. They lost more bags per 1,000 passengers in 2006 than in any other year in more than a decade.

They also have not been shy about lamenting their economic problems and the cost cuts needed to keep operating -- conditioning travelers to expect far less when they fly.

Consultants and academics who track the industry say that has led many passengers to accept the problems.

"We have all come to expect a lot less and have come to know that it doesn't do a lot of good to complain," said Dean Headley, a professor at Wichita State University and co-author of the Airline Quality Review report.

Lawmakers did not jump to attack the airlines yesterday, perhaps indicating a level of acceptance by some of the most frequent fliers in the country.

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who plans to introduce legislation to create a passengers' bill of rights, held back from railing against the airlines yesterday in an interview, saying he wanted to craft a balanced bill. Like other frequent fliers, he said he has also come to accept the tribulations of flying between Washington and his California district.

"I just kind of flip the switch and go through the motions until I get home. You know it's going to be a pain," he said.

Rep. Jerry F. Costello (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee's aviation subcommittee, said in an interview yesterday that he was willing to give the airlines another chance to "develop policies to make certain these things don't happen again before standards are imposed on them."

He called the JetBlue fiasco "unacceptable" but hinted that a passenger bill of rights would have a tough time passing, noting that Congress does not like to meddle in business affairs. Referring to the American Airlines and JetBlue incidents, he said the airlines had "two strikes against them" -- meaning they hadn't yet struck out.

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