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New Airline Passengers Rights Bill Takes Flight in 111th Congress
Critics Miss the Point of New Tarmac Statistics
Continental Flight 1404 Slideshow
CAPBOR Position on Tarmac Delay Task Force
Contaminated Airline Water

New Airline Passengers Rights Bill Takes Flight in 111th Congress

Senators Boxer and Snowe Piloting New Law in the Senate

Napa, California 1/14/09:  FlyersRights.org issued the following statement from its spokesperson, Kate Hanni, on news that Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) today introduced the Airline Passengers Bill of Rights in the Senate.  The bill will give airline passengers legal rights by preventing them from being held indefinitely on planes, ensuring passengers' needs are met, and helping airlines coordinate with government agencies.

"We applaud Senator Boxer and Senator Snowe for introducing the Airline Passengers Bill of Rights in Congress to give passengers legal rights and ensure their well-being. For far too long, the airlines have put profits ahead of customer service and the basic human needs of the flying public.  It is our hope that this bill will give passengers a legal voice when confronted with the horrific ordeal that tens of thousands of passengers have endured when held for many hours on airport tarmacs without food, water and other essential human needs.

Coalition representatives recently met with President-Elect Obama’s transportation transition team, and Senator Obama was a co-sponsor of the previous bill, so we are excited about the prospects for this new bill. 

We encourage all Members of Congress to join the efforts of Senator Boxer and Senator Snowe to ensure the passage of a comprehensive, enforceable Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights that would modernize and improve airline industry standards for customer service."

The main provisions of the new bill are:
  • Airlines to offer passengers the option of safely deplaning once they have sat on the ground for three hours after the plane door has closed. 
  • Airlines to provide passengers with food, potable water, comfortable cabin temperature and ventilation and adequate restrooms while a plane is delayed on the ground.
  • A consumer complaint hotline so that passengers can alert the agency about delays.
  • Airports and airlines to develop contingency plans to be reviewed and approved by DOT, and fines for air carriers and airports that do not submit or fail to comply with contingency plans.
CAPBOR has 24,000 members and is the largest non-profit airline passengers rights Coalition. For more information, please contact Kate Hanni directly at 707-337-0328 or Kate@flyersrights.com or call our Hotline at 1-877-FLYERS-6.

Critics miss the point of new tarmac statistics - December 15, 2008

Two weeks ago the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) released commercial airline performance statistics for the month of October, something they’ve been doing every month for the past 13 years.   What was remarkable about this release was that, beginning October 1st and for the first time in history, airlines were required to report tarmac statistics for diverted and cancelled flights, and other tarmac delays. 

Following mass tarmac strandings in late 2006 and early 2007, in which thousands of passengers were held on airplanes for 9, 10 and 11 hours without food, water and adequate restroom facilities, airline passenger consumer advocates began arguing for federal legislation to address the problem.  Airline lobbyists countered by citing government statistics that showed, for example, that only 36 flights were affected by tarmac delays of over 5 hours in 2006, and thus the problem wasn’t significant enough to warrant congressional intervention.

There was just one problem with the airline’s argument; the statistics weren’t accurate.  They weren’t even close.  In the spring of 2007 when articles began appearing in major media outlets citing these statistics, Kate Hanni, who by then had founded the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, got suspicious and asked her research department to look into the matter.  After sifting through Bureau of Transportation (BTS) statistics and DOT regulations, the truth emerged.  It turned out that the government was omitting flight information for potentially thousands of tarmac strandings;

  • On December 29, 2006, over 120 diverted flights were stuck on tarmacs at airports in the southwest; some for over nine hours.
  • On February 14, 2007, dozens of flights that were eventually cancelled were stuck on tarmacs at airports in the northeast for up to 11 hours. 
  • On April 24, 2007, a large number of diverted flights were stuck on tarmacs at airports in the southwest for up to 8 hours.

The list goes on and on, and many other incidents will be forever unknown except by those who suffered through them.  None of these flights were counted by the airlines or by the government.   There were no statistics.  It was as if all this never happened.  And this is just the way the airlines wanted to keep it.

The only reason anyone knew about these incidents was that passengers got angry.  They called the media and they called Kate Hanni’s hotline.  So Ms. Hanni and her supporters fought hard to get the airline statistics rules changed, and last spring, the DOT enacted regulations that closed many (though not all) of the reporting loopholes.   Those new regulations went into effect on October 1st.

When the statistics for October were finally released two weeks ago, airline lobbyists were dancing in the streets.  The statistics showed that 50 flights had been stranded for more than 3 hours, and 6 had been stranded for more than 4 hours. It took only minutes for airline funded mouthpieces masquerading as consumer advocates to begin heralding the report as a defeat for airline passengers’ rights.

But they missed the point, again.

First, the new statistics aren’t intended to expose chronic tarmac delays during months when everything goes right.  They’re intended to count tarmac delays when things go wrong.  Even still, 34%-to-38% of the newfound data is due to the new regulations. 

Also, before October 1st, there was no way for the public or the Congress to understand the extent of what the airlines were doing when things went wrong.  Now there is.

In addition, the new regulations are a victory for the tens of thousands of passengers stranded on tarmacs in the past who were never counted.  And they are a victory for every passenger that flies today and in the future not only because many of the loopholes have been closed, but because now (like never before), the airlines know we are watching.  And that alone could provide the motivation necessary for them to treat their passengers better.

CAPBOR Position on Tarmac Delay Task Force

Honorable Mary Peters
Secretary of Transportation
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Avenue, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20590

Re:  Docket No.: DOT-OST-2007-0180 - National Task Force to Develop Model Contingency        Plans to Deal with Lengthy Airline On-Board Delays

            -- CAPBOR Concerns With Draft Final Task Force Report

Dear Secretary Peters:

“Although the Task Force Report includes information that could be useful to local airport committees developing contingency plans to respond to long on-board tarmac delays, CAPBOR is opposed to your release of the Report as drafted, for three reasons.  First, the Report does not recognize the right of passengers to be deplaned after a tarmac delay of any number of hours, assuming the option of being deplaned can be achieved safely.  In our view, tarmac strandings after a certain amount of time constitute involuntary passenger imprisonment, and we ask you specifically to override the Task Force majority view in this regard.  

"Second, the FAA will not agree to consider tasking its Air Traffic Control staff with minimizing the queuing on tarmacs for excessive periods of time of departing airline aircraft by imposing  "gate holds" when a substantial delay is certain or highly probable.  FAA regulations defer all such decisions to the airline, no matter how long the pre-departure delay will be.  FAA’s mindset continues to be centered on the movement of “aluminum tubes,” without any apparent regulatory interest in the passengers trapped on board.  We ask that you ask the FAA Acting Administrator to reconsider various FAA positions in Chapter 5.

“Third, airline passengers are concerned that you will not require the industry to implement contingency plans when the final Task Force Report is issued.   As one commenter noted, “By allowing airlines to provide lip service to guidelines [in the Task Force Report] that they ‘should’ but are not 'required' to adhere to makes this entire document useless to the traveling public…." (DOT-OST-2007-0108-0114)"

Contaminated Airline Water

Tests show contaminated water on airplanes:
Summary of water contamination by airline

Would you drink coffee or tea made with contaminated water? How about brushing your teeth or washing your hands with it? There is evidence that unsuspecting airline passengers are using contaminated water, and progress has been slow in reducing the risk.

Through Information we gathered through the Freedom of Information Act, we found fewer than half the airlines ordered as early as 2005 to begin testing their water have done so. Meantime, it's clear that some water on planes is contaminated.

It's something that happens on a routine basis at airports every day. Planes land and crews get that plane ready for the next flight. That includes filling the plane's holding tanks with fresh water.

Just how safe that fresh water is for you to drink may be reason for concern.

In 2004, tests conducted on 327 planes by the Environmental Protection Agency found 15-percent of the aircraft evaluated had water contaminated with coliform.

"Coliform bacteria can indicate that the water has been contaminated and it could be contaminated by something that can make people sick," explains June Weintraub, an epidemiologist with the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

The presence of coliform could mean other more harmful bacteria could be in the water, and that could lead to diarrhea, nausea and other symptoms.

Canada conducted its own tests on Canadian aircraft in 2006 and found similar results to the EPA.

This is the same water many airlines use to make your coffee and tea.

"For coffee and tea on an airplane, they don't boil it long enough to destroy any germs," says Weintraub.

It's also the same water you use to wash your hands or even brush your teeth on the plane. Weintraub says the bacteria can get on your hands and then be transmitted to your food.

We set out to examine just how much has improved since the EPA originally expressed concern in 2004.

"Airlines are doing a significant amount of monitoring, more monitoring and treating, flushing of their water systems," says Benjamin Grumbles with the EPA.

In fact, since 2005, 45 airlines have signed orders agreeing to test the water on those planes. But through the Freedom of Information Act, we discovered only 16 of those airlines have actually released results of those tests. Those tests results show water samples taken from 2,200 aircraft found coliform 10-percent of the time. Meantime, 29 airlines either haven't completed or begun their first round of testing or haven't released their test results.

We showed our findings to the senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco and a member of the EPA's scientific advisory board on drinking water.

"We don't have data from some of the most major airlines out there. The data that we do have still shows contamination in quite a number of aircaft," says Gina Solomon with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Delta, Continental, Northwest and United have released test results. However, American and US Airways are refusing to allow their data to be made public, claiming the results are "confidential business information."

That concerns Yeggie Dearborn, the laboratory director at Cel Analytical in San Francisco.

"I would probably not drink coffee anymore on the airline. I would probably just stick with canned sodas and stuff like that," says Dearborn.

Among the major airlines that have released data, 12-percent of the 323 planes tested by Delta over two years came back positive with coliform contaminated water. Delta says the overwhelming majority of its water samples came back negative.

Sampling on Continental revealed 16-percent of the 883 aircrafts tested found water contaminated with coliform. The airline believes that data is seriously inflated due to faulty testing procedures it is now working to improve.

Other averages include Northwest at 4-percent and United at 5.6-percent. United says it provides bottled water for brushing teeth and antiseptic napkins with every meal. Northwest says keeping its water supply free from contamination is a top priority.

According to the EPA, the tolerance for coliform in water is zero.

"We don't like to see any bacteria, especially coliform bacteria, in potable water, and especially not water that's being served to passengers," says Solomon.

A regional East Coast airline that served 12 million passengers in 2006 had the highest rate of positive tests for coliform -- 49-percent of the 84 aircraft tested by Atlantic Southeast contained water samples testing positive for coliform. The airline says if it detects coliform; it deactivates the water system until the problem is cleared.

Most passengers aren't aware there may be contaminated water on airplanes. However, Colin Finn of Foster City is the exception. He's concerned Air Canada is one of the few to serve tap water to customers requesting water on flights in the U.S. and Canada.

"On a trip we had just recently at Christmas time, traveled with my family, my kids all wanted to have water and I wouldn't let them have water," says Finn.

Air Canada says it serves tap water because it believes it is very clean and safe.

Information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act found several of the positive test results by United were conducted at San Francisco International Airport.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission conducts tests five days a week at the airport to make sure the water supply is not contaminated. The airport says the water it supplies the airlines is clean. In 2007, the airport found only one coliform reading out of 786 samples collected. They think the problem could be in the water tanks on the planes themselves.

"I have no idea if the tank was clean before they filled it up. Was it empty? Was it contaminated before they filled the water?" says San Francisco International Airport spokesperson, Mike McCarron.

San Jose Mineta International Airport reports it only had one test come back positive for coliform in 2007. Oakland International says all its water met federal and state drinking water standards.

However, water at the airport is just one source of potential contamination. Other possible sources include the water hose, the holding tanks and the plane's water system. All are maintained by each individual airline.

"If they're not cleaned properly, they could develop films of bacteria in them," says Dearborn.

The EPA hopes to release its proposal for safe drinking water on airlines within a few months.

"It will embrace treatment and monitoring and regular flushing. The EPA is pleased the airlines are working with us," says Grumbles.

Those airlines that don't comply could have their planes grounded. The Air Transport Association says the industry is working hard to insure water quality on board planes.

Ron Wilson is ABC7's aviation consultant. He thinks passengers need to be better informed about when airlines test their water and what those results might be.

"What you need on board an airplane in every restroom is a little placard on the wall that when they do the testing, they sign off on it and they tell you that the water is clean," says Wilson.

We've compiled all the data we've obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, including test results from each airline and a list of the airlines that have not yet completed or even begun testing. View the data below.

These airlines have submitted test results to the Environmental Protection Agency, but they are challenging ABC7's Freedom of Information Act request for that information. The EPA has yet to rule on that challenge. If the data is released to us, we will update the test results.

  • American Airlines
  • US Airways
The Environmental Protection Agency says these airlines are expected to submit their first water test results this spring.

  • American Eagle
  • ExpressJet
  • Freedom Airlines
  • GoJet
  • Horizon Air
  • Jet Blue
  • Mesa Airlines
  • Skyway Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • Spirit Airlines
Airlines must have their water testing plans approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. The following airlines have not had their testing plans approved and have not submitted testing data to the EPA.
  • Comair
  • Frontier
  • Mesama
  • Miami Air
  • North American Airlines
  • Pace Airlines
  • Pinnacle Airlines
  • Primaris Airlines
  • Republic Airways
  • Ryan International
  • Sierra Pacific Airlines
  • Sky King Airlines
  • Sky West Airlines
  • Sun Country Airlines
  • Tem Enterprises
  • USA3000 Airlines
  • PSA Airlines
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