Passengers stuck on grounded airplanes for more than three hours would have a right to fresh air, electricity, working restrooms, food and water under a measure passed Thursday by the state Assembly.
Legislators of all political stripes, some of whom commute several times a week by commercial airlines, passed the bill with hearty support, even though Republican legislators had been advised by their staffs to oppose it.
"This is a time when we need to spank the airlines," Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries (R-Lake Elsinore) said.
The measure, by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), passed 57 to 17 and goes to the state Senate.
Leno won Republican votes after he deleted a provision that would have allowed trapped passengers to sue airlines under the state's Unfair Competition Law.
That amendment strips the bill of its teeth, complained Kate Hanni, the woman driving a national movement for better treatment of airline customers.
"Absent civil penalties, there's no consequences for the airlines with this kind of behavior," said Hanni, a former real estate broker from Napa, Calif., who created the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights.
She launched www.flyersrights.com and a lobbying effort after she and other American Airlines customers were trapped for as long as nine hours on planes at the Austin, Texas, airport in December 2006.
Leno modeled his measure, AB 1943, after a New York law that has been blocked by a federal appeals court from taking effect.
David A. Castelveter, a spokesman for the country's major airlines, argued that federal law forbids states from dictating how to treat passengers and said airlines might sue if Leno's measure becomes law.
"Whether it be California or Washington or Florida or New York," said Castelveter, speaking for the Air Transport Assn., "our argument in front of the court has been and will continue to be federal preemption."
At the national level, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is pursuing an airline passengers' bill of rights that would free people to leave a grounded plane within three hours if the airline does not have a federally approved contingency plan for such situations.
The airlines are wary of that approach, too, Castelveter said. "We oppose any Draconian measure that takes the flexibility away from the carrier to make the right decision," he said.