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Tarmac delays ground the fight for passenger rights


(Andrew Harrer -- Bloomberg)
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By Christopher Elliott
Sunday, October 25, 2009

The approach of cold-weather season reminds me of tarmac delays.

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Like the Northwest Airlines flights grounded during a 1999 blizzard at Detroit's Metro Airport, leaving passengers without water or working toilets for more than seven hours. Or the JetBlue Airways customers stranded for nearly half a day during an ice storm in New York back in 2007.

But what if those were the only memories that cold weather evoked?

No skiing. No eggnog. No chestnuts roasting on the open fire. That would be absurd, wouldn't it?

No more absurd than what has happened to the "passenger rights movement." In the past few months, a series of headline-grabbing tarmac delays has helped a couple of influential lobbyists convince the media and a few elected officials that tarmac delays are the No. 1 passenger rights problem in America.

Worse, they've convinced many travelers that tarmac delays are the only important passenger rights issue.

Don't believe me? Pull up any recent story that mentions a passenger's bill of rights, and it will inevitably refer to a proposal that would require a plane to turn back after a three-hour ground delay. I happen to disagree that such legislation would help anyone or that it could even be properly enforced, but that's beside the point.

The bigger question is whether this tunnel vision is helping the cause of airline passengers -- and how it might affect your next flight.

I think it goes without saying that other, far more important passenger issues are being overlooked. But I'll say it anyway: We're missing a lot. I asked author and consumer advocate Edward Hasbrouck to name his hot-button passenger rights issues, and alas, tarmac delays didn't make the list. What did? Truth in advertising, problems with federal preemption and failure to enforce existing consumer laws.

"Airlines routinely engage in practices that would constitute fraud if engaged in by any other business," he told me. For example, they sell tickets on partner airlines, giving the appearance that they are operating a flight, which is referred to as code-sharing.

Federal preemption of consumer protection laws, which allows airlines to ignore state consumer laws and consumer protection agencies, is another worry. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 opened that loophole, "and it has been a disaster for consumers," says Hasbrouck.

The U.S. Transportation Department's lack of involvement in consumer protection also ranks as a favorite, and it's an area of concern for me as a reader advocate. The way Hasbrouck sees it, the department is staffed by devout believers in a hands-off approach toward regulation and, specifically, enforcing consumer protections. "Those attitudes have got to go, which is unlikely to happen unless the people at the DOT get firm new marching orders from their superiors, either from the secretary of transportation or President Obama," he says.


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