Monday, January 05, 2009

Nightmare After Christmas shows need for Air Passenger Bill of Rights

By Cody Lyon

The United States Department of Transportation says there is no federal requirement for airlines to compensate passengers who have been stranded because of a delayed or canceled flight.

That was a spooky post holiday truth I learned first hand in Milwaukee Wisconsin this past December 27 during an Air Tran airlines connection point on the way from Atlanta to New York City. The hours-long incident was a reminder that there is little, if any government oversight of some of our most basic but important consumer activities, like commercial airline travel.

Some might say, with the exception of safety, United States airline passengers are basically at the mercy of a profit driven business where passengers are basically left to their own devices to get from point A to B, almost like fighting your way onto the subway or buying a burger at a busy Manhattan McDonalds.

In most cases, if a flight is canceled, an airline will re-book you on the first available flight to your destination at no additional charge. But, as was the case in my experience, finding extra seats could prove difficult, especially if you’re out and about over the holidays. In a nutshell, this led to a couple of hours of travel trauma as my fellow passengers and I tried to make it back to New York City.

That night, flight, #514 from Milwaukee to New York, was the last leg of a long itinerary that had been delayed earlier because of mechanical problems in Tampa. Originally scheduled to depart Milwaukee at just after 5, the plane was eventually boarded at around 8:00 pm instead. Once all the passengers were seated, stowed, etc., the pilot unexpectedly came on the plane’s intercom and made an announcement saying we would all have to leave the plane. Apparently, there was a legal issue that involved the number of hours the onboard flight crew had worked.

These were problems beyond the airline’s control, but it was what happened after we had de-planed some might call questionable. To us on that plane, the next few hours were a sign that America’s airports are temples of chaos and abuse. If that night in Milwaukee is any indication of a greater picture, airlines are allowed to operate with no clear rules of consumer protection or mandated guidelines guaranteed by government oversight.

Back in Milwaukee, at around 9:00 pm after all the passengers had left the Air Tran flight confused and irritated, we watched as uniformed Milwaukee law enforcement officers slowly strolled up to the gate and perched against the podium as the agents on duty filled us in. Obviously, the arrival of “the law” signaled that the news passengers were about to get, would probably spark tempers among the passengers, some who were already barking at agents. Clearly, the agents had been through this sort of thing before.

But repeat performance or not, traveler anger was understandable. The agents told us there was nothing they could really do. Instead, passengers were told to call 1866-airtran and reschedule another flight to New York. It was then that the truly frightening moments of the evening arrived.

Most of us assumed that “rescheduling” meant we’d be booked on a flight that following day. But alas, ignorance is bliss.

In fact, when some passengers made the call to Air Tran’s customer service line, they were told the earliest they could fly would be the following Thursday, better known as New Years Day. The reason being that earlier Air Air Tran flights from Milwaukee to New York were booked solid.

I called right away, and was initially told Tuesday would be the earliest I could get home, but while speaking on the phone begging the agent for something earlier, she paused, then casually told me, oh well, ‘now that flight’s full,’ which then put me at Thursday as well.

The problem was, I had to work that following Monday. I felt the tears knocking on the door in this room full of strangers as a sense of helpless rage infected my soul. As I began to boil over, one of the uniformed Milwaukee deputies eyed me and after I exclaimed a loud “Oh No!” he told me to grow up and act like a man.

Truth be told, Air Tran agents on the scene and phone were clearly ill prepared for the questions they were being peppered with and that included: could other airlines accommodate us, what about a hotel room and others, instead the agents on duty ducked heads and typed furiously into the screens in front of them as they told the furious interrogators they were ‘checking on it.’

But then, after an hour or so of more tears, chaos and childlike confusion, one of the agents took a microphone and shouted to the stranded group that events were developing fast, that in fact, we might be leaving Milwaukee at 5 am that following morning. But, by then, a cloud of suspicion hung over the airport leading most in the room to not watch and question every move, not trusting anything they were hearing.

In fact, once the group fully understood the problem was due to over worked flight attendants, a few passengers decided to take things into their own hands and began begging and offering money to arriving flight attendants deplaning other planes, begging them to accompany us on the New York flight.

In the end, cash tips from passengers weren’t necessary.

Behind the scenes, a new plan was taking shape. Flight 514’s pilot was busy making phone calls to other planes. Along the way, he apparently secured another flight crew to fly with us to New York. Now, we wouldn’t have to wait a few days or until 5:00 am, but instead, it looked as if we would fly to La Guradia as soon as the new replacement crew landed in Milwaukee, scheduled for around midnight that same evening.

By the time the new crew arrived, the on edge passengers had bonded thanks to the shared trauma of it all. Some said they were shocked at America’s apparent lack of control over the beasts it had apparently created through full deregulation.

There were sweet moments in the night that included meeting several interesting individuals, including a New York Social worker who worked with elderly clients, a teacher and a former neighbor from the East Village. And, we all enjoyed an assortment of snacks and free soft drinks, provided by Air Tran. In addition to the snacks, we were compensated with a free round trip ticket any place that Air Tran flies, including Cancun, Puerto Rico or Alaska.

We arrived in Queens at around 430 am, around seven hours late.

In the end, nothing excuses the fact that many of us were almost stranded in an unfamiliar city for what could have been days. What if some of us had placed our employment in jeopardy by missing work? And, while it may seem petty, what about our holiday plans?

The truth is, if it hadn’t been for caring and diligent pilots along with the flight attendants who took our flight some of the passengers on Air Tran-Flight 514 might still be eating Wisconsin Cheese.

Perhaps its time for consumers to demand that government take cooperative steps with airlines in establishing some form of reasonable passenger rights legislation. Perhaps then, not only will Americans feel safer about flying, they might have time to relax as well and still enjoy hopefully reasonable air fares in the future.

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