Imagine that you’ve made it through airport security and have found your seat aboard a commercial airliner. You sit back and think about the great vacation or business deal at the other end of your flight. Lost luggage and delayed takeoff are probably far from your mind. But unfortunately they are not far from the reality of modern air flight.
Tens of thousands of airliners take off from airports around the world each day. With so many planes in the air, it is not surprising that some passengers experience missing connections, delayed takeoffs, damaged luggage and a variety of other problems.
If you are an airline passenger, what recourse do you have if you encounter these problems? Do passengers have any legal rights at all?
In Europe they do. The European Union has adopted regulations that protect passengers who travel within its jurisdiction. Among other things, there are rules against flight delays, cancellations and denied boardings.
In the United States each airline has its own passenger rights policy and there are fewer legal protections.
BILLS CALL FOR PASSENGER RIGHTS
That may change. In the last U.S. Congress, a Senate “passengers’ bill of rights” failed to gain passage, but one of its sponsors was then-Senator Barack Obama, now the U.S. president. The bill has been reintroduced and its supporters hope it will be voted on in September.
A similar bill in the House of Representatives (H.R.624) would grant airline passengers access to food and water, restroom facilities, ventilation and medical treatment even if takeoff is delayed. It would give passengers the right to get off a plane if takeoff is delayed for more than three hours.
NIGHTMARE IN MINNEAPOLIS
That provision would have alleviated the misery of a group of passengers recently forced to spend a night aboard a jetliner stuck on the ground in Minneapolis. The toilets on the plane filled up and the food ran out. “It felt like you were trapped in a cave underground,” complained passenger Link Christin.
It turns out the passengers were kept on the plane in violation of the airline’s own policy and the company’s head offered an apology. But the government was not sure whether any regulations had been breached in the incident.
The Associated Press reports that there were 613 cases in the U.S. this year where planes remained on the tarmac for more than three hours and the passengers were forced to remain on board. “No one believes the airlines are going to make any effort to fix this on their own,” says Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org. Hanni supports legislation to establish a bill of rights for passengers.
U.S GOVERNMENT OFFERS WARNINGS
On its website, the U.S. Department of Transportation warns that “airlines don’t guarantee their schedules.” Some airlines don’t offer “amenities if the delay is caused by bad weather or something else beyond the airlines control.”
The department says it requires airlines to give passengers who are involuntarily “bumped” from their seats (not allowed to board due to over booking) a written statement describing their rights. But overbooking is allowed according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Many airlines will pay to fix luggage if it is damaged by their employees. But the D.O.T says it usually takes airlines six weeks to three months to settle lost baggage claims.
A passenger “bill of rights” would establish legally enforceable boundaries for airline treatment of their passengers. Undoubtedly the airlines and passenger rights groups will weigh in with their views on the legislation and it is not clear exactly what the final bill will include. But the issue is sure to heat up as Congress again considers the matter.