Court Rejects Air Travelers Bill of Rights
Appeals Panel Rules Against N.Y. Law Saying States Cannot Regulate Airlines

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A federal appeals court struck down a New York law yesterday designed to make life a little easier for airline passengers stuck on tarmacs for hours on end.

In response to record delays at U.S. airports over the past two years, New York enacted a passenger bill of rights requiring airlines to provide food, water and bathrooms for passengers stuck in a grounded aircraft for more than three hours.

The law, backed by New York attorney general Andrew M. Cuomo, was thrown out by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, which ruled that individual states cannot make laws regulating airlines.

Although the goals of the bill of rights "are laudable and the circumstances motivating its enactment deplorable, only the federal government has the authority to enact such a law," the court wrote.

Cuomo's office said it was reviewing the decision. New York was the first state to enact a passenger bill of rights, though at least nine others are considering similar laws. It was upheld by a federal court judge before being struck down by the 2nd Circuit.

The law was fought by the Air Transport Association, the trade group of the major airlines.

"The court's decision vindicates the position of ATA and the airlines -- that airline services are regulated by the federal government and that a patchwork of laws by states and localities would be impractical and harmful to consumer interests," the association said in a statement. "This clear and decisive ruling sends a strong message to other states that are considering similar legislation." The group had no further comment.

The New York law was prompted by a massive backup on Valentine's Day 2007 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where thousands of passengers were stuck for as long as 10 hours on JetBlue Airways flights.

Growing delays have provoked a nationwide passenger rebellion. One California passenger, Kate Hanni, was stranded on an American Airlines plane in Austin last year for nearly 10 hours as tempers flared and toilets overflowed.

Hanni launched a grass-roots passengers' rights movement eventually backed by Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who sponsored a bill to that effect.

Thompson said yesterday that some of the bill's language made it into the Federal Aviation Administration's reauthorization, which passed the House and is now in the Senate.

In the reauthorization bill, airlines must provide food, circulating air and potable water to passengers regardless of how long they are stuck aboard an airliner. It also includes language aimed at allowing passengers to leave the plane after a certain amount of time on the ground.

Tom Parsons, publisher of BestFares, a travel Web site, said he understood the airlines' position -- "you cannot have 50 different rules," he said -- but that carriers must be held accountable when passengers are stranded.

"It reaches the point of claustrophobia. I would probably hit the emergency door and get arrested," if stranded, Parsons said. "I'd deal with the judge when I got there."

Airlines should set clear guidelines for customer treatment that, if unmet, would allow passengers to be reimbursed, he said.

Parsons said the Transportation Department could impose a passenger bill of rights. The department is studying proposals to limit delays.

However, Parsons said, "it would be better if Congress" formalized passengers' rights through legislation.

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