Regulation, Litigation or Nothing?
Byline: George H. Lesser , SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
FLORENCE, Italy - There has been a hue and cry in the States because Jet Blue canceled hundreds of flights over Valentines Day, and many more flights were delayed. And the problem is not with just one airline. The Federal Aviation Administration reports 2006 was the worst year ever for flight delays.
Look at the U.S. Transportation Department's Web site on passenger "rights" and see what it says about flight cancellation and delays (http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/publications/flyrights.htm#delayed").
DOT says you have whatever "rights" each airline is willing to give you, and that's that. A right is not something some airline, or any other company, is ever willing to give you. As William H. Vanderbilt put it so eloquently, "The public be damned."
The story is different in Europe. The European Union has regulations stipulating passengers' rights whenever a flight is canceled or significantly delayed, or when passengers are bumped. The passengers' "bill of rights" is prominently displayed all over airports. Go to the EU's Web site on air passengers' rights (http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=IP/05/181&format=HTML&aged=1&language=EN&guiLanguage=fr).
There you'll find a list services airlines must provide when a flight is canceled or substantially delayed. The rules covering delays come into effect when a short flight (up to 1,500 kilometers) is delayed by more than two hours and when longer flights are delayed even longer. If the cancelation or delay is caused by "extraordinary circumstances," such as a storm, over which the airline has no control, it must get the passengers to their destination, or if necessary, back to their points of origin, as quickly as possible. It must also provide meals, hotel accommodations, communications, etc. If the airline cannot prove "extraordinary circumstances," it must provide cash compensation as well, from a minimum 250 euros ($325) for short flights up to 600 euros ($800) for long ones.
The U.S. does have some protection for passengers who are bumped. That's because in 1972, Allegheny Airlines, now U.S. Air, made the ludicrous mistake of bumping Ralph Nader off a flight from Washington to Boston where he was to address two consumer groups. Allegheny offered to "compensate" Mr. Nader by providing him an air taxi flight to Philadelphia connecting to another flight to Boston that would have got him in two hours later, and, presumably, two hours late for his two speeches.
As anybody who has ever heard the name "Nader" would expect, a lawsuit was timely filed. The U.S. district court awarded Mr. Nader and the Boston groups a total of $61 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages. The appeals court reversed, holding Mr. Nader had no right to sue. The Supreme Court unanimously reaffirmed the district court ruling. And, of course, the airline had a large pile of lawyers' bills to pay.
In due course, the U.S. did adopt rules on overbooking, but speaking as a fairly frequent flyer who owns no airline stock, it would appear the rules are designed as much to protect the airlines from Nader-type lawsuits as they are to protect passengers just as "workmen's compensation" laws are designed as much if not more to protect employers than to protect employees. …