Have airlines neutralized the passenger rights movement?

gateI was thrilled when I heard that a coalition of travel professionals was meeting in Washington for a what they called a “stakeholder hearing” on passenger rights. Finally, after years of virtually no representation in the nation’s capital, passengers appeared to be organizing.

Some of the folks who are involved in this effort seem to be genuine advocates for travelers, and I wish them well.

But when I read over the itinerary and began conducting my own research, the thrill was quickly replaced by dread.

Not only did I reluctantly conclude the group’s chief objective — persuading Congress to pass a three-hour turn-back rule for planes stuck on the tarmac — was basically unenforceable, which forced me to do an about-face by withdrawing my support for a Passengers Bill of Rights. But as the group prepares to meet in Washington this morning, I’m convinced that they are doing exactly what the airline industry wants them to.

Indeed, the industry’s lobbyists at the Air Transport Association couldn’t have scripted this better if they’d tried. (And who knows, maybe they have?)

Here’s what I would do if I were on the airline industry payroll:

Assess the threat. My first priority would be to find out who’s who in the passenger rights movement. For now, it consists of one activist with a loosely-organized group of fans, a musician with a viral video, and several lobbyists-for-hire who, for the right price, would support any legislation you asked them to. Separately, these individuals can’t do much harm. But together, they could annoy the airline industry. They need a common cause that will take up a lot of their time and result in no meaningful change.

Define the issues. Over the years, the term “Passenger Bill of Rights” has included many proposed rules that would benefit air travelers, almost all of which were distasteful to the airline industry. If I were an airline lobbyist, I’d do everything in my power to narrow that issue to just one. If only I could make a single cause, like the three-hour rule, synonymous with passenger rights, then the problem could be contained.

Point them in the wrong direction. The two recent tarmac strandings offered an uncanny opportunity for the airlines. The stars aligned. Everyone from itinerant lobbyists to trade organizations were obediently hopping on to the passenger rights bandwagon and pushing for a new turn-back law. They anointed themselves passenger rights “stakeholders” and agreed to organize. Who knew that distracting them could be so easy?

Run down the clock. The final step in this scheme would be to keep the “stakeholders” busy until the mid-term elections, which are less than a year away. If the Democrats lose a majority in the House or Senate, it will make it almost impossible to get any kind of meaningful reform done.

So is the airline industry behind this morning’s “stakeholder” meeting? Unlikely. I think they see this as a misguided, perhaps easily-manipulated group of amateur lobbyists and freelance activists who are talking to themselves for a few hours in one of the smallest rooms in the Rayburn House Office Building. But if I were working for an airline, I’d be high-fiving the guy in the cubicle next to me.

The passenger rights threat has been contained. It is spinning its wheels on an issue that is irrelevant. The window of opportunity for real change is only months away from closing.

Even if Congress passes a three-hour rule, airlines know they’ll be able to get around it, but they also know that the current “stakeholders” are largely driven by a single issue, and will never be able to band together in this way again, even if they wanted to.

For the airline industry, it’s a win-win.

(Photo: Colby Cosh/Flickr Creative Commons)

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