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Making Amends
JetBlue isn't the only one thinking about a 'bill of rights' for airline passengers.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

WHEN ASKED yesterday on NBC's "Today Show" about his views on a federal passenger bill of rights, JetBlue chief executive and founder David Neeleman said, "Why should Congress tell us how to treat our people? We should be able to do that." In a perfect world that would be true. But recent events, including last week's JetBlue debacle, raise doubts.

The renewed push for a passenger bill of rights gained traction in the Valentine's Day ice storm, when nine fully loaded JetBlue aircraft sat on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy airport in New York, some frozen to the ground, for six to 10 hours. In addition to the hundreds who were held hostage on stifling planes that ran out of food and water, hundreds more were stranded as JetBlue's operations ground to a halt.

The seven-year-old carrier wasn't alone in wreaking havoc on travelers that day. But because JetBlue has been heralded for its customer service, it has borne the brunt of criticism. That explains why Mr. Neeleman has been pleading for public forgiveness and instituting his own "Customer Bill of Rights," which includes compensation for canceled and delayed flights, payments to those who are bumped, and the option to get off the plane after five hours.

Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced a passengers' bill of rights on Saturday and Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) plans to do the same next week. Both bills require airlines to allow travelers to get off planes after three hours of delay. That's more reasonable than what JetBlue is offering. And Mr. Thompson's bill goes a step further to mandate frequent updates on the cause and timing of delays.

Kate Hanni, who founded the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights after being trapped in Austin on an American Airlines jet with no food, water or access to a bathroom for eight hours in December, wants a mandated 150 percent refund for passengers who are bumped or whose flights are canceled or postponed. The congressional bills wisely avoid saddling the very competitive and not-very-profitable airline industry with potentially crippling penalties. Neither should the government be micromanaging airline customer service. But setting minimal standards of decency seems like a fair approach.

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