Straighten Up and Fly Right

Posted: Feb 17, 2008 12:01 AM
Straighten Up and Fly Right

Start with the title, the Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights. Bill of rights? That smacks of the unattractive trend in America of even pampered people's quickness to see themselves as victims, when they have no idea what real hardship is.

Kate Hanni is a former Napa real estate agent who became a full-time passenger advocate after being stuck on the tarmac in a plane in 2006 for nine hours -- she claims and contemporary stories reported, without adequate food, water or toilets. Hanni told the New York Times that her nine hours on the ground constituted "imprisonment."

She added, when we spoke over the phone, that a coach seat is smaller than the space mandated for each prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention.

"People were victimized that night," Hanni told The Chronicle's George Raine last year. That's why she started a nonprofit group -- you can find it at -- to fight the airlines and stand up for America's new victim group, stranded passengers.

The thing is, for all of her over-the-top rhetoric about victimization, imprisonment and passenger rights -- which, it is important to note, passengers cede to the pilot and crew when they board a plane -- the lady has a point.

And I have to believe that if the airlines had been more responsive to complaints such as Hanni's, she would not have found so much support from the flying public and lawmakers.

Hanni's journey began on Dec. 29, 2006, when Hanni, her husband and two sons set out from SFO for Alabama by way of Dallas. Because of a mechanical problem, their Dallas-bound flight, American Airlines Flight 1348, left an hour late. That hour delay put the plane into a series of storms moving across West Texas. Flight 1348 was one of 85 American flights diverted from Dallas.

Flight 1348 then sat on the Austin tarmac for nine hours. Hanni said she got water from the bathroom sink, and she gave her only food (pretzels) to her son. Families ran out of diapers. The stench was unbearable.

Worst of all, unlike the flight diversion caused by bad weather, the hours on the tarmac were avoidable. As the Wall Street Journal reported at the time, American Airlines saved its four gates for regularly scheduled planes, and denied gate access to flight 1348. Finally, the captain, at risk to his own career, told passengers he was going to an empty gate -- without permission.

As Hanni sees it, the airline put money before the safety of passengers, some of whom had medical issues. So she put together a list of "rights" -- such as letting passengers deplane after three hours, making sure passengers have adequate food and water, as well as access to medical services and working toilets, and reimbursing passengers for 150 percent of ticket price for long delays, for whatever reason.

Lawmakers have offered pared-down versions of Hanni's package. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, has introduced a federal version of the bill. New York has its own measure and Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has introduced a bill for California.

Give credit where credit is due. Hanni is absolutely right to argue that it is unhealthy to force people, especially those with health issues, to sit in planes without fresh air, without potable water, without food, for hours on end when a plane is on the ground. The government should require that airlines have the necessary provisions, and because the airlines lack the simple manners to release passengers after they've been sitting on the ground for hours, Washington should pass regulations to force them to do it.

I'm all for airlines making money, but not when they turn a plane into an unhealthy human stew.

David A. Castelveter, chief spokesman for the airline industry lobby, the Air Transport Association, told the New York Times that Hanni should not be the focus. "It's about the issue. You can't legislate customer service.''

But if lawsuits from passengers with health problems and lawsuits from passengers like Hanni and fellow travelers who have outrage issues -- not to mention all that negative publicity -- can not get the airlines to straighten up and fly right, they deserve to be regulated. Reasonably regulated.

I still worry about a country in which people view nine hours on the tarmac as intolerable adversity. What do we do when something really bad happens and there is no on-flight service?

But when airlines subject passengers to unsanitary and unhealthy conditions, when there is no necessity, they have only themselves to blame for creating Kate Hannis.