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A Champion For America’s Airline Passengers

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On the last weekend of December 2006, Kate Hanni embarked on what was intended to be a simple short-haul holiday. Hanni – along with her husband, Tim, and sons, LandEn and Chase – was travelling from San Francisco to a coastal resort outside Mobile, Alabama, where Tim, a sommelier, was to conduct a series of wine courses while she planned to relax with the kids. But what should have been an easy half-day journey turned instead into a seemingly endless ordeal. Hanni’s American Airlines flight was stranded at Austin International Airport en route to Dallas and, for nine hours, Hanni and her family were trapped on the runway.

The aircraft was one of 67 American Airlines jets marooned for at least three hours that weekend at 24 airports in the American southwest. Severe thunderstorms at the airline’s Dallas hub had caused a system-wide meltdown. “The captain kept on saying we were 15 minutes from take-off, but meanwhile there was no food, no water and the toilets began to smell,” recalled Hanni. “It was confounding that nothing was being done for us. After seven hours kept captive, they finally offered us a bag of pretzels.”

It’s not hard to imagine how frustrating, uncomfortable and downright unpleasant a nine-hour confinement on a cramped and unhygienic aircraft stuck on a runway must be. But for Hanni, those nine hours almost overwhelmed her. No one other than her family would have known that six months earlier Hanni had been attacked and almost killed by a man who also tried to rape her. The assault had left her with a terror of being trapped in confined spaces, and as hour after suffocating hour crawled by, Hanni suffered flashbacks to her earlier ordeal, forcing her to relive the dread and fear she had hoped never to experience again. Once more, she was flooded by the same sense of powerlessness that had engulfed her during the attack.

It took 57 hours for Hanni to reach Alabama – two and a half days that very quickly changed her life. Two and a half days that the US’s $138bn-a-year airline industry must wish it could undo.

. . .

Before she was trapped on the Texas tarmac, Hanni was a successful real-estate executive in California’s wine country. Today, she earns virtually nothing as the founder, spokesperson and executive director of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights – a 24,000-member non-profit organisation she founded following her aviation nightmare. Outraged at American Airlines’ indifference, Hanni set up the coalition to speak for passengers fed up with the delays, detours and cancelled flights that plague the US airline industry.

Kennedy Airport during the JetBlue ‘mass-stranding’ in February 2007, which prompted the airline to introduce compensation

Since then, she has travelled from California to Washington dozens of times to lobby Congress, appeared on numerous news programmes and done battle face to face with airline executives. An estimated 37 per cent of all US flights were cancelled last year – costing the economy more than $40bn, according to a report by the Congressional Joint Economic Committee. Part of the problem, Hanni believes, is the complacency caused by the lack of a government-imposed policy concerning either passenger care or compensation, even in cases of extensive delays. When Hanni’s flight was disrupted, American failed to distribute food or water for hours, return to the gate, cancel the flight or allow passengers to leave the aircraft – principally because there was no law requiring it to. And there still isn’t.

Within hours of arriving in Alabama, Hanni was blogging about the ordeal. The trip to Alabama’s Gulf shores had been intended to mark an important personal victory – after months off work and long sessions of psychotherapy, Hanni was finally confident enough to return to her career. Instead, she had been taken right back to the very feelings of powerlessness and panic associated with the attack. This time, though, she was determined to put up a fight. “The Geneva Convention mandates prisoners of war be treated better than passengers stuck in airline cabins,” said Hanni.

The coalition Hanni founded almost as soon as she came home from her trip became “like a catharsis for me, it was truly transformational. All of a sudden my focus shifted away from my recovery to helping other people.” Soon after her ordeal at Austin, she had drawn up a bill of rights for passengers. It is an 11-point document standardising airline obligations in the event of extensive delays, cancellations or “bumped” flights. Her timing couldn’t have been better. Barely a month later, 21 JetBlue aircraft were delayed on the runway at New York’s Kennedy Airport for up to 11 hours on Valentine’s Day. (JetBlue eventually voluntarily compensated its customers to the tune of $30m.)

. . .

There have also been class actions, such as the $1.7m won for negligence and false imprisonment against Northwest Airlines nearly a decade ago, after 3,700 passengers were stranded on the tarmac in vile conditions for up to 11 hours during a blizzard in Detroit. A passenger bill of rights proposed as a result of this debacle was dropped in favour of a 12-point service improvement scheme developed by the Air Transport Association (ATA), the US’s deep-pocketed aviation industry trade group that in 2007 – along with the nation’s six largest carriers – spent $21m on lobbying efforts.

“This was a voluntary initiative, a form of self-regulation,” explained Paul Hudson, a lawyer and head of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a watchdog group founded by fellow consumer activist and serial election spoiler Ralph Nader in 1971 that now provides legal support for Hanni’s coalition. “The airlines said they would fix the problem, but clearly they never did.”

Consumer protection policies in Canada and Europe are far tougher. In September, Transport Canada approved comprehensive passenger protection measures that require carriers to allow passengers off aircraft after 90-minute delays and provide meals following delays of four hours and secure alternative travel arrangements when flights are overbooked or cancelled. European Commission regulations are even more far-reaching, providing for compensation of €250-€600 for excessively delayed or cancelled flights, along with adequate meals and accommodation when necessary. Aviation industry trade groups fiercely contested the new laws and sued the commission to have them reversed, claiming the measures would cost European carriers €600m annually.

The year-long litigation failed, and the commission not only upheld its new laws but required member states to ensure they were properly enforced. Jens Mester, transport spokesman for the European Commission, said: “We believe in policies that place citizens at the centre of these kinds of debates. This differs from an earlier approach a decade or two ago that was far more favouring of business and economics. As the EU becomes increasingly integrated, mobility within it is considered one of its major strengths. We must ensure the same levels of passenger protection across the entire community.”

Back in the US, a similar consumer-centric approach to airline regulation is beginning to gain ground. Much of the momentum is due to Hanni and her coalition, which has taken this issue to Capitol Hill. Hanni’s tactics are nothing if not dramatic. In September 2007, for instance, she staged a “strand-in” near the Capitol in Washington. Accoutrements included a 28ft mock aircraft complete with smelly toilets and 40 coalition members-cum-passengers. The airline industry was possibly even less pleased by the accompanying media contingent.

The coalition has also launched a hotline for stranded passengers and a report card grading airlines on their punctuality and length of delays (best scores: Hawaiian and Southwest Airlines; worst scores: American, Continental and JetBlue). The hotline averages 1,200 calls a month; it even has a “Deep Throat” component for pilots wishing to reveal industry secrets anonymously. “Passengers will call us from inside delayed flights,” Hanni said. “We will then immediately try to get the media out to the scene.”

Such moves have given her an unusual sort of celebrity. Blonde, redolent of patchouli and with the feathered hair of the rock chicks of her youth, she is the smile-ready, sound bite-ready public face of the passenger rights debate (and a singer in a Napa rock band on the side). This year Forbes/Condé Nast Executive Women’s Magazine picked Hanni as one of the 25 most influential women in travel, while the trade paper Travel Weekly ranked her as one of its top 33 people.

When Hanni first went to New York to speak on television, just after the stranding, she was too terrified to leave the hotel alone and she “made the bellboy check every inch of my suite because I was afraid someone might be hiding”. Now, she has appeared on television everywhere from local news channels to Oprah spin-off Dr Phil. “My whole life has become about listening to consumers, talking about airline issues, trying to get people’s money back.”

. . .

Kate Hanni has paid her own price for her new career as a full-time activist. Gone is the $250,000 a year her real estate work brought in, replaced last year by a second mortgage on the couple’s Napa home to keep the family afloat and her on the road. Nearly two years later, the coalition has yet to see its passenger bill of rights passed into law. The ATA still insists that airlines can regulate themselves, but many politicians concede that some sort of government guidelines are needed. “The government does have a role in this issue and we are working to establish a set of base-level policies,” said Mary Peters, US Secretary of Transportation. “But our approach is more middle of the road. It’s flexible enough to account for conditions on the ground, while firm enough to guarantee passenger comfort in cases of extensive delays.”
‘We regret to inform you … ’

December 2006
Heavy fog during the pre-Christmas rush at Heathrow, Gatwick and London City airports left thousands stuck in specially erected tents. Passengers were stranded for days and had to sleep on floors and benches. Hats, gloves, blankets and refreshments were handed out to those forced to wait outside terminal buildings, writes David Patrikarakos.

May 2007
Passengers bound for Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt were held on the runway for more than six hours at Newcastle airport. The delay to the Flyjet flight was blamed on a technical fault, then a security alert. One traveller alleged that passengers had been threatened with arrest if they tried to leave the plane.

July 2007
About 1,300 people were stranded over a weekend after Seguro Holidays’ only charter aircraft broke down at Prestwick airport. With no hotel provided, passengers were forced to choose between paying for a room themselves, sleeping on the floor of the airport terminal, or scrapping their holiday altogether. The company ceased trading in September 2008.

March 2008
Chaos marked the opening of Heathrow’s new £4.3bn Terminal 5 as a breakdown in baggage systems forced British Airways to turn away passengers and abandon flights. In all, 33 short-haul flights were cancelled, while many took off without passengers’ checked-in bags. The airline had to announce that it would carry hand baggage only while it struggled with the backlog. Passengers were offered refunds or a chance to rebook.

May 2008
Aer Lingus travellers suffered a 17-hour delay on a flight from Dublin to Malaga. Passengers were initially warned of a 30-minute delay while the aircraft taxied 300m down the runway before the pilot announced there was a slight technical problem and returned to the airport where holidaymakers faced many more hours of waiting.

May 2008
A flight from Ireland to Portugal was delayed for 21 hours after a bolt of lightning struck the aircraft. Two hundred and fifty passengers were left waiting at Dublin, while yet more were stranded abroad as they waited to return to Ireland.

August 2008
Low-cost Canadian transatlantic carrier Zoom Airlines shut down its operations, leaving hundreds of passengers stuck in Canada and Europe. Holidaymakers were warned of delays, then cancellations, before finally being told that Zoom would not be running any more flights.

The initiatives Peters speaks of are components of the sweeping FAA Reauthorization Bill – still pending approval – that reaffirms Federal Aviation Administration oversight of the entire US airline industry. But the scheme – a federally determined set of standards to be enforced by the carriers – still allows the airlines, in effect, to govern themselves. “We think they cannot,” said Illinois representative Jerry Costello, who chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee. “We believe in the need for regulations making the airlines comply with measures protecting consumers caught in unreasonable conditions.”

The ATA and its member carriers insist that the current system works. “We may have had a few high-profile stranding incidents, but government interference is not needed at this time,” says Basil J. Barimo, ATA vice-president of operations and safety. “We feel that the carriers have made considerable efforts to find solutions that meet the needs of consumers … without governmental regulation, intervention or legislation.”

Indeed, many have. JetBlue, for instance, enacted its own customer bill of rights – an industry first – after its February 2007 mass-stranding. Today, passengers on delayed JetBlue aircraft receive between $25 (after 30-minute delays) and the price of their entire round-trip ticket following waits of four hours or more. JetBlue officials say their policy reflects the positive side of self-regulation. “Carriers should be free to compete in what they offer and customers will choose with their wallets,” said Bryan Baldwin, JetBlue manager of corporate communications. “We believe the marketplace will force superior customer service standards.”

Down at Dallas/Fort Worth airport, American Airlines is taking a more technology-based approach to tackling delays while also resisting federal regulation. “We’ve learnt a lot over the past two years,” says Bob Cordes, American’s vice-president for operations planning and performance. “Our goal is to not have passengers held in airplanes after four hours.” To this end, American has launched a clutch of flight-tracking programmes at its systems operation centre. One of them tallies the number of diverted flights at a single airport, another the time individual aircraft spend taxiing on the tarmac (alerting managers to flights delayed for more than three hours), and yet another monitors passenger reservations and alerts travellers to lengthy delays or helps rebook them when flights are cancelled.

. . .

Hanni accepts that the airlines’ efforts are better than nothing. But she still insists that only a government-mandated – and monitored – passenger Bill of Rights will ensure no traveller endures what she experienced two years ago on that Texas runway. “The airlines might have the money to fight, but the public has never felt worse about their performance,” she said, citing a June survey by consumer ratings specialist J.D. Power and Associates that registered customer satisfaction in the airline industry at a three-year low.

Hanni is optimistic that a Barack Obama White House will be receptive to her mission. Even so, she believes that ultimately it is passengers who must push to get her bill of rights turned into law. Which is why three months ago she was once again in New York to champion flyers’ rights at a “Town Hall Meeting” in a hotel just above Times Square. Aimed squarely at the flying public, it followed similar events in Chicago and Miami.

The panellists – a mix of federal bureaucrats, airline executives, industry lobbyists and regional regulators – were in town to debate the state of the American airline industry. Hanni was the panel’s sole passenger advocate. For two hours, she said, airline lobbyists and executives shifted the blame for record delays away from the industry and on to overcrowded airports, antiquated runways and the priority that safety must take over service.

“The meetings were meaningless,” she said. “They weren’t properly advertised, they weren’t user-friendly; they were nothing more than infomercials for the airlines.” Small wonder then that she has little faith that she can step carefree into an airport. And as the holiday travel season and the second anniversary of her fateful 57-hour flight to (almost) nowhere approach, Hanni is taking no chances. “Unless there is a death in my family or a dire illness, I will stay safely home for the holidays.”

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