Our View on Airline Passenger Rights: How Airlines Mistreat Fliers and Get Congress To Go Along
July 30, 2009
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  • 8/20/2007

    Financially ailing airlines find millions for lobbyists, donations.

    Chalk up another trapped-on-a-plane ordeal for passengers and another customer-service fiasco to airline bumbling. On July 29, Continental jetliner bound for Newark, N.J., from Venezuela, was diverted to Baltimore, where passengers sat trapped on the tarmac for more than four hours. Even as food and water ran out and toilet facilities deteriorated, they were given little information. Finally, the passengers started clapping in unison and slapping the overhead bins to protest. Police were called. According to a letter to Continental, signed by more than 70 fliers, they were escorted to an airport transit lounge by “overzealous officers with an attack dog” and “treated as criminals.”

    At least they got off the plane. While Continental disputes some details, Flight 1669Y joins an infamous list of flights since last December on which passengers were stranded for up to 11 hours.

    There oughta be a law, right? Something to mandate decent treatment and a limit on how long passengers may be trapped.

    But none appears imminent. Measures moving through Congress to mandate better airline behavior have been so weakened that they are almost meaningless.

    The airline industry, which opposes new mandates, has lobbied with great success. While it can’t seem to scare up a bag of peanuts to feed stranded fliers, it coughed up millions to fuel lawmakers’ campaigns and to finance its lobbying activities.

    In 2005 and 2006, employees and political action committees (PACs) at nine major airlines and their trade group, the Air Transport Association (ATA), gave $2.4 million to House and Senate candidates, political parties and other PACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks campaign and lobbying expenditures. Last year, the ATA and eight major airlines spent more than $15 million on lobbying. The industry, including several foreign airlines, had 264 registered lobbyists.

    Such largesse is just one among scores of examples of how thoroughly money has contaminated political decision-making, but it is a telling one.

    Just ask Kate Hanni, who became a passenger rights advocate after she was stranded on an American Airlines flight in December. When she asked congressional aides if opponents of the measures had visited them, she was told, “For every one of you [consumers] that comes in, there are four airline lobbyists.”

    The struggle to force airlines to do what most businesses do on their own – treat customers decently – repeats a battle fought in 1999.

    Then, industry lobbying killed a bill that would have forced it to improve service. Instead it negotiated a voluntary, 12-point “Customers First” commitment.

    A review last year by the Transportation Department’s inspector general found the airlines failed to meet some of their most basic promises, such as giving customers timely, adequate information about delays.

    Another vow? To “meet customers’ essential needs during long on-aircraft delays,” including food, water and bathroom facilities. That clearly hasn’t been followed.

    If airlines put as much effort into meeting customers’ needs as they do into lobbying against consumer laws, then perhaps there might be fewer horror stories. And if Congress paid more attention to consumers than to its industry patrons, perhaps it would force airlines to act with common decency.

    Playing politics

    Despite industry financial troubles, employees and political action committees of the nation’s top airlines and their trade group gave more than $2.4 million in 2005 and 2006 to political parties, PACs and congressional candidates.

    AMR Corp.: $563,000

    Continental: $346,000

    Southwest: $319,000

    Northwest: $292,000

    UAL Corp.: $276,000

    Delta: $188,000

    Air Transport Assoc.: $168,000

    US Airways: $147,000

    Alaska Air: $88,000

    JetBlue: $53,000

    Source: Center for Responsive Politics research based on Federal Election Commission reports through Feb. 19, 2007.

    Source: USA TODAY
    Date: 2007-08-20