By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Consumer advocate Kate Hanni of Napa fielded media interviews all day Tuesday on Capitol Hill as she hailed the latest move to get limits into federal law on how long airline passengers can be stranded on tarmacs.
Hanni stood with Rep. Mike Thompson as the St. Helena Democrat introduced the 2011 version of his airline passengers’ bill of rights, which gives travelers the right to get off flights after three hours on the tarmac.
“He really set the gold standard,” Hanni said in a telephone interview, calling Thompson’s bill “the toughest legislation” to date.
The bill also requires airlines to provide food, water, adequate restroom facilities and ventilation aboard grounded aircraft.
Hanni, a former real estate broker, has mounted a one-woman crusade for passenger rights since she and her family were stuck in Austin, Texas for 9½ hours in 2006.
Thompson, whose district includes Napa, filed his first bill of rights measure in response to Hanni’s campaign the following year. It did not become law, but in late 2009, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood ordered airlines to adhere to many of its standards and set fines of up to $27,000 per passenger for tarmac delays exceeding three hours.
“We’ve done quite well, I think,” Thompson said. But federal regulations “can come and go at any time,” if not enacted by Congress, he said.
His bill attracted 22 initial co-sponsors, including seven other California Democrats and two Republicans, whose support might prove important in a GOP-controlled House.
He also noted that Hanni’s web-based 25,000-member organization, FlyersRights.org, has followers in virtually every congressional district. “This is very popular with just plain folks,” Thompson said.
Some Republicans have fought the Transportation Department rules since they took effect last April, Hanni said.
In the last eight months, only 15 domestic flights have been stuck on the ground for more than three hours, Hanni said.
Three flights were delayed in December, but none of them due to the massive post-Christmas blizzard, the Associated Press reported, noting that 584 flights were stranded more than three hours in the same period a year ago.
JetBlue, which cancelled 1,400 flights in five days related to the December blizzard, said it resulted in about $30 million in lost revenue. But Hanni said the weather was faulted, not the federal rule. “We expected the airlines to blame us and they haven’t,” she said.
Passengers aboard foreign airlines, which are not subject to the current three-hour limit, were stranded for more than seven hours during the storm at New York’s Kennedy Airport. Thompson’s bill applies the limit to international flights.