Lawmaker seeks health, safety standards for flight delays

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., asks FAA to develop procedures for health and safety of passengers in lengthy flight delays.

With lawmakers arguing Friday about the need for legislation to create an airline passengers' bill of rights, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member John Mica, R-Fla., asked the Federal Aviation Administration to develop procedures for the health and safety of passengers during lengthy flight delays.

In a letter Thursday to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, Mica asked the FAA "to work with airports and air carriers to develop contingency plans appropriate for each airline and airport to care for airline passengers in the event that health and safety hazards arise as a result of extremely long delays."

Congress has been spurred to act in the aftermath of a Valentine's Day incident in which passengers were kept on JetBlue flights for at least nine hours at New York's JFK Airport because of inclement weather. A similar incident involving American Airlines occurred in December. JetBlue responded by drafting a passenger bill of rights that has received mixed reviews.

Lawmakers disagree over whether legislation is necessary. Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., have introduced a bill allowing passengers to leave a plane if it has been grounded at least three hours and guarantees that food, clean water and adequate bathroom facilities are provided. Exceptions would be made if a pilot believes the flight will leave within 30 minutes after the three hours have elapsed or believes deplaning would pose a safety risk to passengers. Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, have introduced similar legislation.

While FAA and the airlines reached a voluntary agreement in 1999, "we know by the latest rash of problems that it's not working," Thompson said Friday.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Costello, D-Ill., said the agreement is not working because Congress failed to conduct oversight hearings to check on the airlines' progress.

"I think one of the reasons it didn't work is because Congress didn't do its job," Costello said. He promised that his subcommittee, which held a hearing today on aviation consumer issues, "will hold additional hearings to monitor their progress and if they don't act we will."

Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., said he would oppose Thompson's bill because lawmakers need to consider unintended consequences with allowing passengers to deplane during an airport traffic jam.

"It's easy to say, but what has to be done behind the scenes to accomplish that?" he asked.

Meeks, who represents workers at JFK, also said he wanted to ensure that legislation does not increase airline costs to a level that results in layoffs.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., prefers that airlines address the problem through their contracts of carriage with passengers instead of through legislation. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., though, said airlines should be required to post contact information on tickets for passengers to register complaints to the Transportation Department.

"Nobody knows DOT's there, or who to complain to," he said.

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