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    Op-Ed
    Saturday, March 02, 2024

    Airline passengers deserve a bill of rights

    Canceled Southwest Airlines flights are displayed in red on the departures monitor at the Southwest terminal at the Los Angeles International Airport, Dec. 27, 2022. The disruptions started with a winter storm and snowballed when Southwest's ancient crew-scheduling technology failed. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

    Unexpected cancellations, hours-long delays, exorbitant fees, and cramped seats. These frustrations and many others are all too frequent unfortunate realities of flying. Air travel has never been more uncomfortable, more unpredictable, or more stressful. Passengers impacted by the winter storms sweeping across the country — and those affected by Southwest Airlines’ meltdown just a few weeks ago— know it all too well. That’s why I reintroduced legislation — the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights — to ensure consumers have the protections they deserve and to incentivize airlines to do the right thing.

    My comprehensive legislation provides practical, tangible guarantees to passengers. If your flight is delayed by more than four hours, you would get $1,350 in cash on top of a refund for your flight, automatic rebooking, and a reimbursement for a meal. If your flight is delayed overnight, you would also get reimbursed for lodging costs. And for a shorter delay, of one to four hours, you would have the right to a refund of your flight and automatic rebooking at no additional expense.

    Even before the Southwest meltdown, nearly one-quarter of all flights in the United States didn’t arrive on time — or at all. If you were late or didn’t show up to work one of every four days, you’d be fired.

    Flight disruptions can profoundly impact Americans’ lives. Christine Pastore of Stratford shared her story with me, recounting how she and her husband meticulously planned a visit to see their daughter in Colorado on her birthday, Dec. 26.They were set to fly on Southwest Airlines that morning, but when they arrived at the airport, they learned their flight was canceled. After hours on hold with Southwest’s customer service and trying to figure out alternative flights amid the chaos of Southwest’s meltdown, they were forced to drive home and haven’t been able to see their daughter since.

    Christine’s story is only one of many experiences — shared by thousands of Americans trying to fly this year. Many incurred significant expenses while stranded away from home or trying to get to their destination — hotel, travel, and meal expenses — without any peace of mind that even a portion of those unplanned costs would be reimbursed. Nothing can make up for missing a child’s birthday or a holiday with loved ones, but tangible consumer rights — and knowing them — can significantly decrease stress amid hectic flight cancellations.

    Expenses are only part of the story. Rights need to be made real. Laws are dead letter if they’re unenforced, and in my view, the enforceability provisions are just as important — if not more so — than any other provision in this bill of rights.

    The bill significantly strengthens the U.S. Department of Transportation’s current enforcement efforts. It would eliminate the artificial $25,000 cap on civil penalties and require a new rule to prevent airlines from negotiating reductions in penalties for violating consumer protection laws — bolstering the agency’s ability to hold airlines accountable for egregious conduct.

    My Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights also empowers consumers and restores their rights. Passengers would have the right to bring individual actions. Arbitration would be barred if it is compelled. Consumers would finally be able to come together, joining in class action to enforce their rights. An individual loss may be in the hundreds or thousands of dollars and therefore very difficult to enforce, but in coming together, consumers would gain real power over airlines—creating a real incentive for airlines to do the right thing.

    This is the time for action. It is not only the debacle with Southwest, but also the ongoing flight disruptions and inconveniences consumers face every day. Stories like Christine’s and those of thousands of other Americans are the impetus — and momentum — behind this legislation.

    This cause ought to be bipartisan. There’s nothing Republican or Democrat about being stranded in an airport. It happens in blue states and red states, to Republicans and Democrats. Everybody has a story.

    Airlines will continue to muster armies of lobbyists and lawyers to fight us, but I think we have a very powerful consumer movement here that can carry the day. Passengers deserve nothing less than real rights, their enforcement, and airline accountability.

    Richard Blumenthal is serving his third term as a United States Senator from Connecticut.

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