‘Bill of Rights’ for airline passengers


| nrosenberg@queenscourier.com |

Kate Hanni, the founder of the 22,000-member Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, had her ‘aha!’ moment about a year ago when she was stuck on the tarmac in Austin, TX for over nine hours.
“Nine hours and seventeen minutes with no food, no water and overflowing toilets” to be exact, said Hanni. “It’s not even in my personality to complain,” Hanni said, adding she was so angry by the ordeal - it took her and her family 57 hours to get from San Francisco to Mobile, Alabama - that she promptly quit her job as a realtor to form what she said is the only lobby for airline passengers.
Hanni had her ‘tah-dah!’ moment on the first of this year when the New York State Consumer Protection Board (CPB) announced the implementation of New York’s Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, signed by Governor Spitzer in August 2007.
The bill, officially titled General Business Law, Article 14-A, stipulates that whenever airline passengers are delayed on an aircraft for over three hours, the carrier must provide them with temporary power for fresh air and lights; waste removal from on-board restrooms; and sufficient food and drinking water. Governor Spitzer called the new bill “not only the right thing, but also the humane thing to do.”
Hanni, currently working for free, initially intended to have a federal law passed to protect airline passengers but the federal government was not moving quickly enough for her.
“It’s amazing how fast a state can pass a law,” she said, explaining that the New York bill exists because of the bipartisan support between State Senator Charles Fuschillo of Merrick and Astoria Assemblymember Mike Gianaris. Hanni considers Fuschillo and Gianiaris “bold, gusty, and brave for not kowtowing to airline lobbyists” especially after they initiated a $1,000 per person civil penalty for any violations of the new bill.
“It’s really good news for New York travelers as well as anyone going through New York,” said Hanni, who, prior to advocating for the bill, was aware of many passenger abuses that had occurred at LaGuardia and JFK. In an infamous incident on Valentine’s Day last year, a Jet Blue flight idled for over eleven hours in a clumsy ballet of bad weather, fruitless de-icing and a lack of consumer protections.
Steve Yurchak had a similar experience on an American Airlines flight out of JFK en route to his honeymoon over Thanksgiving week of this year. Yurchak’s mother, fed up with the situation, called Hanni’s hotline, and Hanni alerted the media.
Texan Robert McKee injected the cause with some adrenaline when his YouTube video of a runway debacle on a Delta flight out of JFK made its rounds on network news. The resulting coverage gave some wings to the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, which was, at the time, being challenged in federal court.
According to Bryan Baldwin, a spokesperson with JetBlue Airways, his airline is the only carrier with an actual customer bill of rights, enacted in the wake of what he regarded as the failures of February 14, 2007.
“We truly believe that what we have put into place is broader than anything legislative,” Baldwin said, noting that JetBlue’s new policies protect consumers before they have even gotten onto a plane.
Laura Sanchez, stuck overnight at JFK after being stranded on the runway for over an hour, agreed that the new legislation could provide more for consumers. Sanchez and her family were on their way back to Germany, where her husband is stationed with the military, but they missed their connecting flight because of the delay.
“It was just overwhelming. We were all frustrated and the kids were getting tired and anxious,” said Sanchez, who thinks children should be given a beverage within the first twenty minutes of any delay and in-flight entertainment should be turned on for them.
Kate Hanni is hungry for legislation that is more aggressive. “We’re going to sting them like a beehive - state by state,” she said of her plans to ultimately pass a federal bill with more stringent protections.
For more information on Kate Hanni’s Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights visit flyersrights.org or call 877-FLYERS6.