Reprinted from the Dallas Morning News

Written by: Terry Maxon

Brandon M. Macsata had no single defining airline experience, no day in the rain where he sat on a grounded airplane for eight or 10 hours.

Instead, the frequent flier’s dissatisfaction with the state of airline service has grown flight by flight, delay by delay, week by week, year by year. Eventually, late last year, he came to two conclusions:

•Passengers on U.S. airlines need a federal law that sets a minimum level of acceptable service from the carriers.

•Passengers need an equal footing at the negotiating table with airlines, air traffic controllers, labor unions and other interests.

As a result, Macsata, a Florida public relations executive, has created a new group, the Association for Airline Passenger Rights, to do battle with the industry and work with other consumer groups to pass laws to protect passengers.

Macsata said the problems with airline service call for a legislated solution. Beyond long sits on airplanes, Macsata said there are other issues, such as whether airlines cancel less full flights simply to save fuel or whether inaccurate scales are causing passengers to pay extra charges for overweight bags.

“To say that the airlines can police themselves is kind of like saying Wall Street has done a good job of policing themselves over the last couple of years,” Macsata said.

In advocating federal legislation, he faces determined opposition from the industry, which has criticized any effort to legislate what it must do when flights are delayed or canceled.

Airlines have urged the government to let carriers adopt contingency plans that best fit their individual situations, and the air carriers have touted new policies to protect customers.

For example, Continental Airlines Inc., which faced enormous operational problems when a surprise snowstorm disrupted its operations Dec. 10, said last week it has adopted a policy of letting passengers demand that a flight return to the gate after three hours on the ground.

Several lawmakers have introduced legislation in Congress to establish a three-hour maximum, after which an airline would have to give passengers the option of leaving an airplane stuck on the ground.

Leading the efforts thus far has been a coalition of consumer groups, including FlyersRights.org, formerly called the Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights.

That group was formed after its organizer, Kate Hanni, was caught aboard an American Airlines Inc. flight that was diverted to Austin on Dec. 29, 2006, and kept its passengers aboard for many hours.

Hanni said she welcomes all efforts to enact laws to protect passengers, although she said she doesn’t want a new group to dilute a consolidated push for legislation.

“We really don’t know who he is,” she said of Macsata. However, “I hope he’s successful and that we’re successful.”

Air Transport Association spokesman David Castleveter called Macsata’s criticism of the industry’s fuel surcharges, passenger fees and other charges “absurd,” noting that U.S. airlines lost billions of dollars in 2008.

“While they don’t admit it, it looks like they’re looking for total reregulation of the aviation industry,” Castleveter said.

He also said a three-hour rule for getting off a plane probably would leave more people stranded at their own expense as more flights are canceled. If the disruptions are caused by weather, airlines would have no obligation to find hotel rooms for people who have to stay an extra day or two until they can be rebooked on another flight, Castleveter said.

“I don’t understand why these groups, like Kate Hanni’s group, can’t understand the unintended consequences of these rules,” he said.

Macsata said it isn’t his intent to bash the industry, and he said he recognizes the difficult job airline employees face. He also said that his constituents would be frequent travelers, not the leisure travelers who go by air once a year.

Unlike FlyersRights.org, Macsata is charging for membership: $10 annually. “We did that on purpose,” he said. “We want buy-in.”