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Thu, Nov 13, 2008

Task Force Swings, Misses On Airline Delay Protections

Panel Opts To Let Carriers Decide On Guidelines

Anyone holding out hope the federal government would finally add some teeth to guidelines on how airlines should handle passenger strandings should probably stop reading now.

The Associated Press reports the so-called "tarmac task force" -- a group made up of federal officials, airline executives and passengers rights advocates that first met last December -- voted Wednesday on a disjointed set of measures aimed at better treatment of passengers during extended flight delays.

Alas, the commission couldn't even decide on the definition of what a "lengthy delay" should be... and it only gets worse from there. The task force did say airlines should update passengers stuck on the tarmac every 15 minutes about their situation, even if there's no news to report; that refreshments and entertainment should be provided for stuck travelers 'when practical'; and that airlines should "make every reasonable effort" to keep lavatories usable.

If that language sounds somewhat less-than-authoritative, keep this in mind: it really doesn't matter anyway, as the task force also opted to allow airlines to determine whether or not they would comply with the guidelines in the first place. And that grates task force member Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights.

The report "is a set of best practices, but there's nothing enforceable where a passenger can say, 'I won't be held up for more than three hours or five hours or eight hours, or without a glass of water or a sandwich,'" said Hanni.

"We were hoping at a bare minimum to come out of this task force with a definition of what is an extensive on-ground delay."

Another task force member said it become immediately clear the committee, dominated by airline interests, would be unable to reach consensus on any meaningful standards.

"The airlines don't want it, and the airports — several of them major airports — believe they already have plans" to handle passenger delays, said Paul Ruden, a senior vice president at the American Society of Travel Agents. "I had hoped we would do more."

Despite those protests, the final task force vote was 34-1 in favor of the model contingency plan, said DOT Secretary Mary E. Peters.

"I deeply appreciate the time, efforts and thoughts of all the representatives of airlines, airports, consumer groups and the Department who served on this task force," Peters said. "As we continue our efforts to improve protections for airline passengers, this document and the viewpoints of all the task force members should provide a valuable resource to minimize the hardships to passengers resulting from lengthy airline ground delays. I look forward to reviewing the document in the coming days."

Not surprisingly, the Air Transport Association feels the task force reached its goal. "The success of the task force clearly demonstrates that not every problem requires a new law or regulation, especially when it comes to operational and customer-service issues," said Elizabeth Merida, a spokeswoman for the airline lobbying group.

FMI: www.dot.gov, www.airlines.org, www.flyersrights.org

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