By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 17, 2007
Just a few months ago, Kate Hanni wasn't thinking much about the woes of air travelers.
The Northern California mother of two was a popular real estate agent, living in a 3,200-square foot home on a golf course, singing in a Motown band and driving a Lotus race car.
But after being stranded for nine hours on an American Airlines flight at an airport in Austin in December, she has emerged as the public face of passenger discontent with poor airline service. Angry at her treatment by the airline, she founded an advocacy group for air travelers that has been seeking stiffer regulations of the industry. On Wednesday, her group, the Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights, is scheduled to hold a rally on the Mall that is to include a 28-foot-long makeshift jetliner that replicates the smells and sounds endured by passengers caught up in a lengthy tarmac delay.
"It will be stinky," Hanni, 47, said yesterday as she examined the jetliner model at Lincoln Park in the District. "It's going to be like what we went through for nine hours. It will feel like it was for us: imprisonment."
Hanni has entered the fight at a time when airlines have been criticized for record-setting delays and poor customer service. In the first seven months of the year, 27 percent of flights were delayed or canceled, the worst performance since the federal government began keeping statistics in 1995.
Since her Dec. 29 delay on the American Airlines jetliner, Hanni created her lobbying group and has met with more than 150 lawmakers. She has been interviewed by dozens of newspapers and television and radio stations, created a Web site that links thousands of air travelers and set up a hot line for passengers to call with airline gripes.
The efforts have helped her group gather nearly 18,000 signatures on a petition urging Congress to pass a bill of rights for passengers that has been introduced in the House.
The bill, if passed, would require airliners to return to the gate after a tarmac delay of more than three hours. It would also require airlines to provide food and water for stranded passengers, and to more frequently update customers with information on the delay.
Although members of Congress, staff members and lobbyists have said they do not expect the bill to pass because it would put onerous costs on the industry, some of Hanni's concepts have found their way into other legislation. The House funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration, for example, would require carriers to establish plans to care for passengers during lengthy tarmac delays and would also require the Transportation Department to keep better track of such delays.
Her work has gotten the attention of the industry. Airline executives said Hanni has become one of the first successful advocates for airline passengers, a group that has been historically difficult to mobilize.
"Kate Hanni's regrettable experience and her advocacy have helped keep Washington focused on this issue," said Robert Land, a senior vice president at JetBlue Airways, which published its own bill of rights for passengers after the carrier was criticized for stranding thousands of passengers during a winter storm that disrupted the airline's operations for days in February.
Hanni says the roots of her advocacy extend deeper than being stuck on a plane for nine hours. In June 2006, she said she was assaulted while showing a house in the Napa Valley area near San Francisco Bay. The assailant has not been caught.
After months of psychotherapy, she was ready to return to work in January. Being stranded on the American Airlines jet reminded her of the emotions she felt during the attack. She decided to change her life's focus, she said.
"I felt victimized, powerless and very stressed," she said. "I wanted to do something about it."
Hanni and her husband, Tim, who owns a food-seasonings company, took out a line of credit on their house and have tapped their savings so she can battle the airlines. While her group has raised about $20,000, Hanni said that is not enough to cover her travel and other expenses.
Still, Hanni has used the donations and her own funds to finance 16 trips to Washington to lobby Congress for airline passengers. She is expected to testify at a House hearing on air travel problems Sept. 26.
In preparation for this week's rally, she and Mark Mogel, a semi-retired computer-software engineer from the Philadelphia suburbs, met yesterday at Lincoln Park to practice assembling the makeshift jetliner, which stands 10 feet tall. Mogel managed to roll out a canvas but had to scrap plans to build the model after U.S. Park Police stopped the rehearsal because the team did not have a permit.
Mogel, who remains angry about lengthy tarmac delays he has suffered as a business traveler, joined Hanni's group after seeing her interviewed on C-Span in February and March. He said he has come to admire her energy and tenacity.
"The airlines picked a fight with the wrong woman," he said.