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A bill of rights could be a cure for the headaches of flying coach

Airline passengers just can’t catch a break. Or can they?

Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to scramble for alternative travel arrangements last week after American Airlines, the nation’s biggest carrier, canceled more than 3,000 flights for maintenance checks.

Meantime, Frontier Airlines on Friday became the fourth U.S. carrier to seek bankruptcy protection in less than a month, although Frontier continued to fly. It joined Aloha Airlines, ATA and Skybus, which left passengers high and dry. Charter airline Champion Air said it would shut down in the next few weeks.

Amid all this chaos, it was easy to overlook a federal court’s ruling last month that overturned a New York law guaranteeing airline passengers a “bill of rights” for when they get stuck on the ground during epic delays.

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The New York law was similar to legislation pending in Sacramento that would safeguard California air travelers. The fate of that bill is now uncertain.

“We have little difficulty concluding that requiring airlines to provide food, water, electricity and restrooms to passengers during lengthy ground delays relates to the service of an air carrier,” the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said in a 3-0 decision. “Only the federal government has the authority to enact such a law.”

Unfortunately, the federal government has been unable to get any such law off the ground. Legislation for a national passengers’ bill of rights, co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), has been stalled in the Senate for the past year.

But that could change.

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“Right now, the wind is at our back,” Boxer told me by e-mail. “The terrible situation we’ve seen in the last few days with thousands of flights being canceled has in some ways bolstered our prospects.

“Airline passengers have every right to expect that they will not be trapped for hours on a grounded aircraft without food, clean drinking water or access to adequate restroom facilities,” she said. “We’ve heard stories of elderly passengers stuck on planes without access to their medication. That is simply unacceptable.”

Indeed. It’s no less extraordinary that passengers and lawmakers are forced to battle the airlines for what any reasonable person would consider basic, humane treatment.

The woman who’s been out front in this fight is Kate Hanni, a former Northern California real estate agent who now heads a grass-roots group called the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights.

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Hanni, 47, was in Washington last week testifying before Congress on how miserable it is to be stuck for hours on a grounded flight with no food or water, and with bathrooms that quickly turn into toxic-waste sites.

This was an ordeal Hanni experienced firsthand in 2006 when her American Airlines jet remained on a tarmac in Austin, Texas, for more than nine hours after bad weather caused delays at numerous airports.

“Flying is the seventh ring of hell,” she said by phone after winding up her appearance on Capitol Hill. “It’s getting tougher and tougher.”

Hanni said she remained hopeful that a passengers’ bill of rights would be passed at the national level, if not at the state level in light of last month’s court ruling. But she admitted that since her own nightmare in Austin, “nothing meaningful has been done for passengers.”

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For its part, the airline industry wants to keep things just as they are.

The Air Transport Assn., an industry group, said the striking down of New York’s passengers’ bill of rights “vindicates the position of [the association] and the airlines -- that airline services are regulated by the federal government, and that a patchwork of laws by states and localities would be impractical and harmful to consumer interests.”

However, the group’s president, James C. May, testified in Congress last year that the association opposed the federal passengers’ bill of rights as it’s now written. Washington insiders say the airlines are doing everything they can to water down the legislation.

All things considered, it seems fair to wonder if air travel will ever again be anything more than a prolonged exercise in discomfort and deprivation.

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Ray Neidl, a prominent airline-industry analyst at Calyon Securities in New York, expects U.S. carriers to lose a combined $1 billion this year, and for the red ink to continue flowing as long as oil remains above $100 a barrel. (It closed Friday at $110.14.)

One problem, he told me, is that passengers insist airlines compete on price rather than on comfort or convenience. As a result, the airlines are constantly seeking new ways to economize so they can keep prices low.

This means you now have to pay extra for virtually everything -- food, blankets, pillows, entertainment, checked baggage. What it also means, Neidl said, is that airlines will increasingly focus on their more lucrative business-class passengers instead of us poor saps in coach.

“The guy in the back of the cabin doesn’t pay for the flight,” he said. “Flights wouldn’t exist without business class.”

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In the future, economy-class passengers can expect fewer flights and fewer available seats. That will translate to more crowded conditions and less flexibility in terms of when people can fly.

Here’s something else: No one is predicting that there will be fewer business-class passengers. If anything, they’ll account for more seats on the average flight.

Yet as the cost of those seats continues to rise in tandem with oil prices, it’s a fairly safe bet that companies flying their execs here and there will pass along the expense to customers, resulting in higher costs for a wide variety of goods and services.

Think about that the next time you’re folding yourself into a coach seat and stealing glimpses through the curtain at those lucky, leg-room-enjoying folk in business class.

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I asked Neidl what choice people have.

“You can go Greyhound,” he replied.

The way things are going, that could soon represent an improvement.

Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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