Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Needed ... Now!

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Air rage seems to be all the rage these days. By now, we either know someone whose been stuck at the airport for hours or you’ve personally experienced the nightmare that we call traveling. Let me start with a personal story that prompted me to become involved in the plight against what some are calling a “hostage situation” for those trapped at the airport.

Some background: I’ve been doing radio with Bill O’Reilly for over five years and never missed a day — even when I had two broken ribs from an accident. Last week, I booked my 10-year-old daughter on a Jet Blue flight so she could visit her grandparents across the country. She traveled as an "unaccompanied minor," meaning I get a special $25 pass to drop her at the gate where she’s met by a flight attendant. She’s seated in the front row and subsequently adults on the other side meet her at the gate. As you can imagine, it’s nerve-wracking to put your child on a plane, but I feel comfortable knowing that she’s under constant adult supervision.

That said, last week, New York was flooded with torrential downpours so we left extra early and arrived on time. After tons of hugs and kisses, the flight attendant assisted my daughter to her seat and the flight appeared ready for take off. But, they did anything but take off. They sat and they sat and they sat. The problem? The weather? No. Mechanical problems? Nope. The pilot was a no-show! The airline knew the captain was AWOL, yet proceeded to board 200 plus people, including my 10-year-old!

After learning the truth, I became enraged. How come more than 200 people arrived on time, (even with the subway system under water), yet the pilot couldn’t navigate his way to the plane? And, why didn’t Jet Blue have a back up plan — an understudy if you will? Furthermore, knowing they didn’t have a pilot, why did the airline board all those people? (We could’ve had breakfast and enjoyed girl bonding time — instead my daughter was trapped on the plane, held “hostage” and I couldn't do anything about it).

Bottom line: after several hours on the tarmac, a pilot finally arrived. But, I too became a collateral hostage. As a responsible parent, I couldn’t “take off” before the plane departed. So, due to pilot tardiness, I called O’Reilly to inform him that he’d have to carry the load himself (ha ha).

The next day on the radio, Bill asked me what I was thinking about. I recapped my story (still irate), yet happy to be at work knowing daughter was safely at her destination. Bill referred to my daughter as “Little Wiehl” and was also outraged that my 10-year-old was stuck on the tarmac with no pilot. He said there should be a law protecting passengers against sitting on the ground for more than two hours, and if that occurred, the plane should automatically return to base. I couldn’t agree more.

The airline essentially kidnapped my little girl and I was helpless, except to write this column! Does my story sound familiar? It should. This same thing happened twice within two months this year, but worse. In December 2006, American Airlines stranded passengers for eight hours on a tarmac in Austin, Texas, while other planes were able to take off and land. And who could forget the Jet Blue bedlam when 10 flights were delayed for an unfathomable amount of time — one for 11 hours? An elderly woman on that flight asked for some food some five hours into the delay and a flight attendant told her there were a few snack boxes and subsequently charged her $4. Only after learning the woman was diabetic and in danger, did the stewardess relent the cost.

If you still need another example of an air hostage situation, I have another personal story — this time on my return flight from visiting my parents (yes, the very same trip that I sent my daughter ahead of me). Only yesterday, I was leaving Washington with my two kids on a Jet Blue flight when we received notice of a delay. I know, big shock. But what did shock me was the reason —not the weather and not a missing pilot — but a cat! Apparently, someone boarded with a cat and several passengers in the vicinity were allergic to the furry feline; because the crew could not rearrange enough people, we were on the ground an extra three hours. Unacceptable. Like most of us, I’m an animal lover, but I don’t want to spend my afternoon on a runway because of a fluffy friend. To add insult to injury, a flight attendant eventually announced that we were departing, but not before saying “good evening, or good afternoon, I’m not sure anymore.” I proffer that when the stewardess becomes confused about whether it’s day or night, it’s time to take action.

When asked about this behavior, customer service reps deliver a scripted response, “we’ll try our best, but we don’t really promise anything.” It says nothing about setting benchmarks, meeting deadlines, requiring notifications or anything beneficial for customers. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to discover that nothing has changed and we’re still captive to their schedules.

Of course, airlines just want our complaints to vanish into thin air, but we’re fed up with this treatment and finally taking a stand. Kate Hanni, a “hostage” on one of these flights and a one-woman machine brought her story to Capitol Hill. Hanni formed the Coalition for the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, calling for new laws to protect us from the “unfriendly” skies. The Bill seeks the most basic level of customer service after the systematic entrapment of tens of thousands of passengers for countless hours over the past year. Enough is enough.

Key elements of the bill include following a procedure for deplaning passengers stranded on the tarmac for three hours or more; proper service for the essential needs of passengers during onboard delay, truthful reporting of flight delays and cancellations and compensations for severe inconveniences. “The performance of airlines coupled with illusory or false promises and customer service plans shows why passenger legislation is essential.” Said Paul Hudson, an executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project.

Just last week, New York State became the first in the nation to enact an airline passenger bill of rights, mandating that all airlines at New York airports provide snacks and water, fresh air and working restrooms for passengers delayed on planes for more than three hours. The House and Senate have yet to vote on the federal bill, but many representatives have shown a great commitment to passenger’s rights. However, Congressional rhetoric alone does not suffice. “We are tired of the long hot travel season from hell and we want passenger legislation that is meaningful, not empty promises,” pointed out Hanni. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

To sign the passenger bill of rights petition, click here.

Right now, it’s an airline’s world and we just live in it. I propose we begin to take back our friendly skies.


• Traveler's Rights
Passenger Bill of Rights
Coalition Calls on Congress to Stop
The airline passenger's bill of rights
NY Gov. Spitzer Signs Passenger Bill of Rights


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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.