Kate Hanni was just another Jane Q. Public when she boarded American Airlines Flight 1348 on New Year’s weekend. But after enduring what’s been called the “flight from hell” with her husband and two children — a 57-hour odyssey that included nearly nine grueling hours on the tarmac in Austin, Texas — Ms. Hanni has become the poster girl for the passenger rights movement. Christopher Elliott recently spoke with her to find out how an unassuming real estate broker from Napa, Calif., became the nation’s best hope for passing meaningful passenger-rights legislation.
Q: Let’s start with the flight from hell, which is what everyone is now calling it. What was that like?
Hanni: It was horrifying. I kept thinking, ‘God, why are they holding us on the plane for so long.’ I remember going to the restroom. The pilot was coming out, and I was going in, and he said, ‘Enter at your own risk.’ The toilet was brimming full. They could have at least emptied the toilets – they had the ability to do that. They could have bough us food. I was very nervous. The only thing I can compare it to is an incident last summer, where I was assaulted in a vacant home by someone who I thought was a buyer. I though I was going to die.
Q: How long after you survived the flight did you think of trying to change the law?
Hanni: I didn’t decide to do it immediately after the flight. There was so much chaos. The idea of forming a Coalition for Airline Passenger’s Bill of Rights only got off the ground a couple of days ago. But it’s really gained some traction since then. As of yesterday, we have more than 600 members.
Q: Why do we need a passenger rights bill? Aren’t the airlines regulated enough?
Hanni: I believe airline service has gone downhill in the last few years. Seventy-five percent of all flights are delayed. Customer service has declined since 2002, which is the last time passengers gave us their word that they would do better without legislation. People are tired of being lied to. I think everyone is pretty mystified by the whole idea that every time you get on the plane, you waive all of your rights. Our well-being and best interest is of no concern to the airlines — it’s all about numbers.
Q: How have the airlines — and in particular, American Airlines — reacted?
Hanni: They’ve backpedaled. They’ve try to blame what happened in Austin on the weather. It’s true that they had nothing to do with the weather, but why didn’t they take us off the plane? Every single time American talks about the flight, it says, ‘We had bad weather that day. It was a disastrous event.’
Q: What about your idea to pass a passenger bill of rights into law?
Hanni: I’ve been contacted by a lot of other organizations that say they’re advocates for air travelers. I’m checking them out. But in terms of airline reaction, I’m anticipating a huge fight. I’ve already had some strange calls.
Q: Really? What kind?
Hanni: There was one bizarre one. I had a guy call me and say, ‘I can’t tell you who I am. My father was a pilot. I want to give you some information. First of all, I need to tell you that American may threaten your life. They are going to do whatever they can to stop you.’ He said he had spoken with the management at the Austin airport, and he said the day we were there, there were gates available for our flight, but that American didn’t want to pay the $135 fee to use the gate. They don’t want us to know that. He said he had records. I was scared.
Q: Your anonymous caller makes a valid point. The airline industry has some of the best lobbyists in Washington, and they will do everything they can — well, hopefully within the law — to stop a passenger bill of rights from passing. What makes you think you’ll succeed where many others have failed?
Hanni: I can’t become resigned or cynical about this. I believe we have huge support. We’ve gotten phenomenal feedback so far. Even the press I’ve spoken with says, ‘Yes, something needs to be done.’
Q: Count me among them. But still, passing a law isn’t easy. What’s next for you?
Hanni: I’m going to Washington next week. I’m hoping that Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Congressman Mike Thompson will support us. This is brand new to me, and I’m doing the best I can. People have been very generous. I’ve been offered an office in Washington and the assistance of a public relations firm. I think we’ve been able to organize so quickly because of the Internet and our blog. We have a huge grassroots support that’s building, and I think that’s what it’s going to take. Other people need to contact their legislators and ask them to support a bill of rights for passengers.
Q: What’s been the hardest part so far?
Hanni: Well, I have a job as a real estate broker, and I haven’t been able to get any work done lately. But I know that there are powerful people who want to stop this and that makes me more determined. I’ve been spending most of my days and evenings taking phone calls from people who are interested and from reporters. And when I sleep, I have nightmares.
Q: What kind of nightmares?
Hanni: Last night I had a nightmare that I was on an American Airlines flight, and there was a crash. And no one would help me.