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Tarmac Delays: Momentum Builds for Passenger Rights Laws

August 17, 2009 By: George Dooley

The airline industry may have run out of excuses for not supporting policies that would curtail if not end tarmac delays, the Business Travel Coalition (BTC) says, as “unstoppable momentum” continues to build for passenger rights legislation. In a statement, BTC chairman Kevin Mitchell notes that passenger rights legislation is supported by ASTA, the NBTA and consumer rights groups, and Congressional action is possible this fall. “Game-over, lights-out; it’s time for legislation and a single industry standard,” the BTC said in a statement.

While the BTC has not yet officially taken a public position on the issues and is still surveying the industry, it said airline opposition to passenger rights legislation faces a tough test.

“It is abundantly clear from preliminary results that airlines have run out of public-relations runway," the BTC said. "Even their own employees, senior executives and former board members support passenger rights legislation, according to the survey and related interviews BTC has been conducting.

“From BTC’s vantage point, reasonable and experienced airline and travel industry executives have concluded that if airlines cannot solve these customer problems after ten years of Congressional pressure and unfavorable press coverage, then there must be a market failure," the BTC continued. "That extended ground delays are statistically insignificant is lost on the daughter who had a ninety year old father parked in a hot metal tube for five hours in August. This is first and foremost a health and safety issue. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars endeavoring to incrementally improve upon aircraft accident statistics. Why should passengers expect and accept less with respect to the nearly 500 incidents during the first six months of 2009 in which passengers spent greater than three hours on planes?”

“Unstoppable momentum is building for passenger rights legislation," the BTC concluded. "Airlines’ loss of control of this debate is the first but perhaps not the last “unintended consequence” resulting from stonewalling for so long on this important consumer issue. They have a closing window-of-opportunity to humble themselves and constructively engage the proponents of passenger rights legislation.”

The BTC notes that the Air Transport Association (ATA) and its member airlines have been invited to participate in a September 22 Passenger Rights Stakeholder Hearing in Washington, D.C. (

As background to the crisis, the BTC reports that, since 1999, it has testified four times in Congress in opposition to passenger rights legislation. “In lieu of Congressional intervention in the marketplace, anathema to businesses whose interests BTC represents, BTC called for the voluntary airline Customer Service Plans that went into effect in September 1999," the BTC said. "In testimony in March of that year, however, as well as in all follow-on testimony through the years, BTC cautioned that if the airlines do not fix the service and extended ground delay problems, someone will eventually endeavor to do so for them.”

In its 1999 testimony the BTC said:
“Like other industries that have faced the ominous threat of government intervention, airlines should view this legislation as a major warning and move decisively to address Congressional concerns. The industry needs to take immediate steps to head off this and further Congressional action, which will surely follow, if the industry’s problems are not corrected in the near term.”

“It seems that no matter where in the world passenger rights standards are proposed, airlines drag out the dire but fatigued 'unintended consequences' warning," the BTC noted. "For example, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association last week told the San Francisco Chronicle, 'I promise you that if a three-hour rule goes into effect, we'll be having this conversation again and talking about the unintended consequences...' And in Europe, the International Air Transport Association and the European Low Fares Airline Association claimed that the now-implemented EU passenger rights regulations would limit consumer choice.

“The sky, it turns out, did not fall in Europe," the BTC said. "A EU-based travel management company CEO recently told BTC, 'the EU regulations on flight cancellations and delays were expected to increase costs without much benefit to passengers. However, it seems not to have had that result. My experience is that vague reasons for cancellations have disappeared, and that the airlines will re-route and provide overnight accommodations when technical reasons prohibit them from flying. Compensation for cancellations is paid without argument.' ”

BTC concluded its analysis by saying that the airlines have lost control of the debate as a consequence of “stonewalling for so long on this important consumer issue. They have a closing window-of-opportunity to humble themselves and constructively engage the proponents of passenger rights legislation.”


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