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September 25, 2007
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  • Opposing view: ‘A balanced approach’

    Our bill protects fliers but doesn’t overregulate the airline industry.

    By James Oberstar and Jerry Costello

    Members of Congress are frequent fliers and experience the same aggravations as the rest of the flying public. Long lines, long delays, overbooking, crowded cabins, lost luggage. We’ve also experienced them many times over.

    As we crafted the passenger-rights provisions of the new aviation bill moving through Congress, we had to restrain the impulse to take out our own frustrations with the airlines by piling on cumbersome, unworkable mandates. Our bill provides strong measures but stops short of re-regulating the industry. It honors the contract of carriage, the basic legal agreement between airlines and passengers, and places enforcement properly in the hands of the secretary of Transportation.

    In drafting our legislation, we determined that one size could not fit all. Air traffic controllers, for example, told us that a firm deadline to force a plane’s return to the terminal after a given number of hours could produce chaos on the ground at many airports.

    Instead, we require airlines and airports to develop their own emergency plans and submit them to the Department of Transportation (DOT). The secretary would then have the power to accept, reject or require modification. The secretary would also have the power to enforce the plans, and levy fines for non-compliance.

    The incidents at Detroit, Austin and New York’s Kennedy airport that triggered calls for action were failures of planning as much as they were failures of operation. By requiring the airlines and, importantly, the airports to develop plans for such emergency situations Ñ including a strategy for deplaning stranded passengers Ñ we can avoid the indecision and poor decisions that led to these travel nightmares.

    Our bill further requires public disclosure of these plans and a 24-hour complaint hotline. It also sets up a DOT advisory group on aviation consumer issues.

    The bill, passed by the House last Thursday, takes a balanced approach. It was created in consultation with passenger-rights advocates, allowing the airlines and airports needed flexibility, holding them responsible for living up to their promises and hitting them with fines if they don’t.

    Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairs the House Subcommittee on Aviation.