The passenger rights revolution is a year old. But it won't last another year -- unless you do something about it.
Who can forget that icy winter afternoon in New York when travelers were stuck on planes for up to 10 hours? People were outraged. The chief executive of one airline, JetBlue Airways, lost his job. And Kate Hanni, a real estate agent who had been trapped on a flight several weeks earlier, became a celebrity lobbyist with a mandate to re-regulate the airline industry.
For a few months, it looked like the revolution would succeed. With record delays and cancellations during the summer, and plummeting customer-service ratings, it seemed air carriers had become the most effective proponents of new laws that would essentially force them to behave -- something they should have been doing all along.
But appearances can be deceiving. Meanwhile, the airline industry's influential lobbyists worked behind the scenes to water down the proposed passenger rights legislation and fight every meaningful initiative designed to improve the plight of their customers.
And guess what? They've just about won.
The passenger bill of rights has enough loopholes to fly a couple of Airbus A380s through, side-by-side. If it passes, it probably won't make much of a difference. Even the passenger rights movement's sole victory -- a New York law that went into effect at the beginning of 2008 -- is on shaky legal ground and could quietly die when it is appealed.
But it's not too late. Here are six things you can do now to resuscitate the revolution:
1. Don't Fly Any Airline That's Fighting the Proposed Changes
When you buy a ticket on any carrier whose unofficial motto is, "We aren't satisfied until you're not satisfied," you're funding the counter-revolution. Check out the latest Air Travel Consumer Report published by the Transportation Department to get the names of these soulless companies. (Look up the ones with the most complaints -- those are usually the carriers that take you for granted.) Give them your business and you're funding the enemy. An airline that understands customer service -- ironically, JetBlue Airways comes to mind one year later -- will voluntarily adopt its own policy designed to prevent another customer service meltdown.
2. Follow the Right Leader
All of the public attention that's being paid to passenger rights has turned crusaders like Kate Hanni, Paul Hudson of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition and David Stempler of the Air Traveler's Association into media stars. All of them claim to represent the interests of air travelers to one degree or another. But do they? You don't have to be an investigative journalist to figure out that some of these self-appointed revolutionaries have ulterior motives that make them completely unsuitable representatives. Look at where their money is coming from. Look at what they're saying on your behalf. Yes, we should be grateful to them for keeping the focus on customer rights, even when the media's attention drifted away. But it's imperative to support the ones who understand the passenger rights revolution is about us -- not them.
3. Write to Your Elected Representative and Vote
I know what you're thinking. Is that going to make any difference? Well, yeah. If your representative is on one of the transportation subcommittees -- say, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee or the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation -- a single, well-written letter could have a significant effect on what happens to the passenger rights movement. Double points if you live in a district where your representative leads the committee. Remember, it's an election year, so if your congressman, congresswoman or senator doesn't pay any attention to your feedback, you have the power to make a change. Cast a vote against them in November and give someone else a chance to do the right thing.
4. Ask Your Membership Organization for Help
Until now, organizations such as AAA have sat on the sidelines as the battle for passenger rights has raged on. With good reason. It's a messy and potentially resource-draining fight. But what if a group like AARP threw its weight behind a powerful passenger rights bill? (Think about it -- how many seniors like to travel?) What if the National Business Travel Association, which represents large corporations, jumped into the fight in a public way? If you belong to one of these organizations, ask them to get involved.
5. Become an Activist
You don't have to move to Washington to become an agent for change. Just start a blog and write about this conflict. (I've retooled my blog into a resource for travelers who want to become aware of their rights.) Volunteer for one of the organizations lobbying for positive changes. Write a letter to the editor. Send an e-mail to one of the journalists who are supposed to be covering the airline industry, and ask them to cover this important issue. If they don't respond, write to their editors and producers. Don't take "no" for an answer. Every news organization can be pitched. I know, because I've worked for just about every news organization.
6. And for Goodness Sake, Please Don't Riot
Based on the e-mails and phone calls I've received about the passenger rights movement, it's probably only a matter of time before U.S. passengers follow their Argentine counterparts and stage an airport riot. That wasn't a misprint; I said, "riot." That was the scene in Buenos Aires in early January, when passengers reportedly threw computers and wrestled with airline employees because of delays. Aerolineas Argentinas blamed the mess on a labor conflict, but union officials said the disruptions were caused by overbooked flights. I don't have to tell you that rioting is a bad idea, but beyond that, do you really want the airlines to look like the victims? Keep it civil. Just because some of the airlines have lost their manners doesn't mean we should.
Can the passenger rights revolution be saved? If enough passengers take up the cause, follow the right leader, lobby their elected representatives and refuse to take "no" for an answer, then real change is possible.
And if not? Let's not even go there.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at email@example.com.
(c) 2008 Christopher Elliott Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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