Correction to This Article
This editorial on the demise of New York state's flight delay law said only JetBlue Airways and Delta Air Lines had voluntarily instituted passenger bills of rights. United Airlines should have been mentioned.

Holding Pattern

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

WELL, IT WAS a good try. The New York state law that sought to bring a little dignity to flying by requiring air carriers to provide fresh air, lights, functioning restrooms and "adequate food and drinking water" during a delay of three hours or more at John F. Kennedy or La Guardia airports was struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. The rationale: Regulation of the airlines is a federal, not a state, function. As much as we want air carriers not to treat passengers like cattle, we're not unhappy with this outcome. State micromanagement of their operations is not the way to bring carriers in line.

The New York statute was a reaction to the Valentine's Day horror of 2007, when a freak ice storm in the New York area canceled hundreds of flights and trapped thousands of travelers in airport terminals and on tarmacs -- some of the latter for up to 10 hours without food, water or working bathrooms. The pain at the gate continued for the rest of the year as aggrieved passengers endured the worst flight delays since record-keeping began in 1995. And don't get us started on lost, delayed or damaged luggage or on the explosion in customer complaints.

Ideally, rules on how many hours one could be trapped on an airplane and what kind of amenities must be on hand when delays become excessive should come from the airlines themselves. But only JetBlue Airways and Delta Air Lines have voluntarily instituted a passenger bill of rights since February 2007. Thus, and given that regulating the airlines is a federal duty, it's not surprising that Congress would think about stepping in.

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) piggy-backed many elements of his passenger bill of rights legislation onto the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. Rather than micromanaging airline operations down to the number of bottles of water each plane must have on board, the bill calls on air carriers and airport operators to submit contingency plans to the secretary of transportation for approval. The plans must describe how an airline would provide food, water and restroom facilities and how the airport operator would make gates available during an emergency.

This is preferable to having rules imposed by the Transportation Department. But here's the problem: Though the reauthorization has passed the House, it is stuck in the Senate. Until the Senate moves on the bill, passengers can expect more of the same.

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