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Originally published January 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 23, 2008 at 10:28 AM

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Passenger rights bill gets a push in state

State Sen. Ken Jacobsen believes airline passengers deserve some basic rights — food, water, fresh air, working restrooms and the...

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — State Sen. Ken Jacobsen believes airline passengers deserve some basic rights — food, water, fresh air, working restrooms and the ability to get medical attention if they're stuck in a parked airplane for more than three hours.

Jacobsen, D-Seattle, says his legislation that would provide those rights comes from personal experience. "I had my epiphany on the runway: This sucks," he said.

Airlines seem to have the same opinion of his measure, Senate Bill 6296, which also would subject airlines to potential fines of up to $1,000 per violation, per passenger.

Major carriers, including Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines, oppose the legislation. They say they already have good customer service, and that only the federal government should regulate their industry.

Jacobsen's bill, which had a hearing on Tuesday, is expected to clear the Senate Consumer Protection & Housing Committee this week. Lawmakers are expected to make some changes, such as removing a provision that requires airlines to refund passengers 150 percent of their ticket price if a flight is delayed more than 12 hours.

It's not clear how the bill will fare in the full Senate.

Kate Hanni, founder of the national Coalition for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, was the only person to testify in favor of the bill.

She talked about her own well-publicized horror story of sitting in an airplane with her family on a tarmac in Austin, Texas, for more than nine hours in 2006.

Hanni said they were given no food, other than a bag of pretzels, during the wait. The airline refused to return to the gate even after numerous requests from passengers, she said, noting that the toilets were overflowing and the stench filled the airplane.

"We have less rights as an airline passenger than a prisoner of war," she said. "We have no rights once they close the doors of the plane."

Jacobsen said his bill is patterned after a law approved last year by the New York Legislature. The airlines challenged that law in federal court, and the measure was upheld.

A report prepared by legislative committee staff said the court reasoned that providing fresh water, air and lavatory access "is a health and safety issue, an issue that states may regulate."

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Airlines, are appealing the decision, arguing that New York pre-empted federal law and doesn't have that authority.

Hanni said seven states, including Washington, New Jersey and Florida, are considering legislation similar to New York's.

The airline industry is opposing those efforts, as well as a push in Washington, D.C., to approve a federal passengers bill of rights.

"We don't think you can legislate service. We think there will be many unintended consequences ... that are not always to the benefit of customers," said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a U.S. airline trade group.

Steve Jarvis, a spokesman for Alaska Airlines, testified Tuesday that there's no need for such legislation when it comes to his company.

Alaska has more than 50,000 landings a year at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, "and to my knowledge we didn't have any in memory where we exceeded a three-hour tarmac delay and had customers trapped on board an airplane," he said.

In fact, Jarvis said, Alaska Airlines' internal policy requires employees to get passengers off the plane if they're waiting on the tarmac for two hours.

Castelveter, in an interview by phone, argued that while there have been cases where planes have been delayed for hours "we also have to point out the number of circumstances where there have been lengthy ground delays is infinitesimal."

Records kept by the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows that out of roughly 6.8 million flights between January and November last year, more than 1,500 were delayed three hours or more after leaving the gate.

Between June and November last year, JFK in New York had 270 flights delayed that long, Chicago had 81, Boston had 15 and Sea-Tac Airport had none, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics says. In fact, Sea-Tac has had only two flights delayed on the tarmac more than three hours in the past two years.

Hanni contends that the federal statistics don't capture certain types of flights. She said her group has anecdotal reports of seven instances in 2007 where flights sat on the tarmac at Sea-Tac for more than three hours.

Perry Cooper, a spokesman for the airport, said he doesn't know if that's true because airlines don't report delays to the Port of Seattle, which oversees the airport.

Jacobsen said his legislation is common sense.

"I've been on the runway myself for four hours," in a different state, he said. "If you get somebody who is diabetic or a parent with a young baby and they need some special attention and they're not going to go back to the gate or anything, it's a dangerous situation and it's no way to treat people."

And regardless of what's happening at Sea-Tac, he said, it's still important for Washington to pass the law.

"If we adopt this approach, it legitimizes it further and other states look at it," he said. "I could be the guy leaving Seattle who gets caught in a six-hour layover someplace."

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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