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NBTA Changes Position: Now Backs Passenger Rights Legislation

August 13, 2009 By: George Dooley

The National Business Travel Association (NBTA) is backing strong passengers rights legislation that includes an automatic turn-back rule for passenger planes on the tarmac for three hours. NBTA has thrown its support behind Senators Olympia Snowe and Barbara Boxer of Maine and California, respectively, for the Senate FAA bill, S1451, FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act.

The move, which represents a shift in NBTA's position, was prompted by an outcry from NBTA members and the broader business travel community following the recent overnight stranding of a planeload of passengers in Rochester, MN.

The Airline Passengers Bill of Rights would, according to the NBTA analysis:
*    Require airlines to provide passengers with food, potable water, comfortable cabin temperature and ventilation, and adequate restrooms while a plane is delayed on the ground.
*    Require airlines to offer passengers the option of safely deplaning once they have sat on the ground for three hours after the plane door has closed. This option would be provided every three hours the plane continues to sit on the ground.
*    Make airports and airlines develop contingency plans for delayed flights to be reviewed and approved by the Department of Transportation (DOT). The bill also allows DOT to fine air carriers and airports that do not submit or fail to comply with contingency plans.
*    Direct DOT to create a consumer complaint hotline so that passengers can alert the agency about delays.

The bill provides two exceptions to the three-hour option: the pilot may decide not to allow passengers to deplane if he or she believes their safety or security would be at risk due to weather or other emergencies.

Additionally, the pilot may delay deplaning up to 30 minutes beyond the three-hour period if he or she reasonably believes the flight will depart within 30 minutes.

"For years the business travel industry believed the airlines and the federal government would work together to fix the problems that led to excessive tarmac delays, but enough is enough," said NBTA President and CEO, Kevin Maguire. "When we've got travelers stuck on planes sitting on the tarmac overnight, it's clear the problem has spun out of control, and legislation is the best solution. We need to hold the airlines to a 'bright-line' rule that respects the basic humanity of passengers by preventing airlines from keeping them captive, which is exactly what the Snowe-Boxer language will do."

NBTA has previously supported mandating baseline airline consumer protections but has not endorsed a turn-back rule. Despite political and commercial pressures to fix tarmac delays, excessive delays continue to take place— including the occasional horror story like the overnight delay in Minnesota— indicating that a legislative fix is called for, the NBTA said.

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