WASHINGTON – Attention, passengers, this is your Congress speaking: The latest round of flight cancellations just may prompt passage of an air travelers' bill of rights that has been delayed for two years.
The bill, first offered in February 2006, was designed to deal with air travel nightmares such as passengers stuck for many hours in planes on the tarmac, often with little or no food or water. It bogged down in Congress due to an unrelated funding dispute over the Federal Aviation Administration.
Lawmakers predicted Thursday that the cancellation of 2,400 American Airlines flights in recent days will give the bill new life.
The legislation does not deal specifically with canceled flights that never board, but Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said it is important for Congress to stick up for passengers in the face of what she called the airlines' indifference.
"They are so arrogant about it," said Boxer. "If this Congress fails, shame on all of us, Democrats, Republicans, chairmen, ranking members."
Kate Hanni was stuck on a plane for nine hours on a tarmac in Austin, Texas two years ago. She now leads the advocacy group Coalition for Airline Passengers Rights, Health, and Safety, and called on Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont. and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., to resolve their dispute over funding in the stalled FAA bill so the passenger bill of rights can be passed.
Senators pushing the bill said the public will not tolerate more delays, either at airports or in Congress.
"There are no excuses. Congress has run out of excuses," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, one of the bill's original authors. The bill would require airlines to let passengers leave a plane after it has sat on the runway for three hours. It also establishes minimum standards for food, water, and toilet facilities for passengers in planes stuck on the ground for long periods.
New York State passed a similar law, but it was struck down last month when an appeals court said such matters must be addressed by the federal government, not individual states.
Lawmakers plan to increase pressure on the FAA and the industry by holding a hearing on the economic costs of widespread flight delays.
Delays cost the U.S. economy an estimated $9 billion a year, according to Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York City, which has seen some of the worst of the flight delays at its three major area airports.
"The U.S. economy can't afford to have one of its major airlines just shut down for days," said Schumer, adding: "The ripple effect is tremendous, it's like putting a vise on commerce."