‘Prisoners of War Have More Rights’ Than Stranded Airline Passengers


The New York State Airline Passenger Bill of Rights seeks to save fliers from a recurrent travel nightmare: being stranded on a crammed airplane for hours— breathing stagnant air, with no food, no water and unsanitary bathrooms.

But yesterday the Air Transport Association of America, a trade group which represents a number of carriers, lodged its second legal challenge to the regulation, arguing that the federally-regulated airline industry should not be subject to a state law requiring minimal amenities for passengers cooped up on a grounded plane. A three-judge federal appeals seemed to agree with the trade group.

“I’m startled over and over again by the audacity of the airline industry,” Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, the author of the bill, said. “They hired high priced attorneys out of Washington to come and argue that passengers that are stuck on a plane for hours at a time should not be allowed to use the bathroom or have a drink of water. This is where the industry is spending their time and resources.”

Gianaris would like airlines to instead spend some money on emergency provisions for passengers stranded on the tarmac. His legislation, signed into law last year, demanded bare-bones accommodations like food, water, fresh air, clean toilets, and electricity for people held on planes in excess of three hours. The New York State law also threatens violators with a $1,000 fine per passenger.

The airline industry unsuccessfully challenged the law in December. Three judges hearing the case yesterday, however, seemed to be skeptical of the state regulation, according to the Associated Press.

The judges said they were sympathetic to the needs of passengers on planes, but they seemed to agree that only the federal government can regulate airline services. Judge Brian M. Cogan said New York’s law might lead to multiple solutions by states nationwide that would subject airlines to all kinds of requirements.

Judge Debra Ann Livingston agreed.

“There is a patchwork problem in that every state should be concerned about this and probably would write different regulations,” she said.

Even though the judges had not yet ruled, Judge Richard C. Wesley defended their apparent stance.

“This is a pre-emption issue. Judges aren’t heartless people in black robes. Three judges must decide whether New York stepped over the pre-emption line,” Wesley said.

So far, New York is the first state to pass a passenger bill of rights, though states across the nation have similar bills in the works. A federal version of a bill to help passengers trapped on the tarmac has stalled. Gianaris believes that the industry’s issue with his legislation has less to do with whether the state has the right to enforce it, and more to do with the financial implications of having extra snacks and drinks on board should a plane remain grounded for hours.

“It’s a simple matter of cost for them,” Gianaris said.” They don’t want to figure out how to do it. My point is this is not a matter of discretion and you could keep fares lower by not allowing people to use the bathroom. These are basic necessities and they shouldn’t be bargained away.”

After court proceedings yesterday, Kate Hanni, president of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights said that that the jurists’ decision, which is expected in the coming weeks, could have a chilling effect on bills in states across the nation. “If New York gets overturned than everything we’ve worked for gets overturned,” she said.

Hanni said that she couldn’t comprehend how airlines could display such a disregard for humane passenger treatment. She began the airline passenger advocacy group following her own terrible experience of being stranded on an American Airlines flight for over 13 hours in Texas in 2006. While they waited passengers drank water from the bathroom sink until it ran dry and held their noses after the restrooms overflowed. The lucky ones consumed snacks they had earlier stowed in their pockets.

“Prisoners of war have more rights through the Geneva Convention than passengers on an airplane have once the door is shut,” she said. “They get food, they get water, they get blankets, they get medicine, they make sure that they get a place to sleep and we don’t.”