WASHINGTON – For Frederick resident Patricia Shank, it was bad enough that she had to sit on a grounded Virgin Atlantic jet for nine hours in an ice storm in January.
It was worse when the flight attendant ordered her to face forward and watch the safety film for a second time, six hours into her ordeal at Dulles International Airport.
But she was not prepared to have her rights challenged by the captain, who came over the intercom to tell passengers who had asked to be let off the plane that they were on “British soil” and subject to his rule.
“I truly feel that my rights as an American citizen were taken from me right in our nation’s capital and there was nothing I could do about it,” Shank said Wednesday.
Shank was one of five fliers, including another Maryland resident, who shared airline horror stories before a congressional subcommittee considering the “Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.”
“We’ve struck a nerve and I hope our friends in the airlines realize they’ve got to do better,” said Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., the sponsor of the bill, citing Transportation Department reports that passenger complaints rose 26 percent from 1997 to 1998.
His bill would require that airlines reimburse passengers who are held on runways for more than two hours at twice the value of their tickets. The reimbursement would triple at three hours, quadruple at four hours and so on.
The Transportation Department would have to report to Congress on whether airlines are adequately safeguarding unaccompanied minors, under the bill. And airlines would also have to explain all flight cancellations, diversions and delays — and they could not lie about it.
Joel Perlman, a patent attorney from Columbia, said he thinks he was misled at Christmas when he and his wife, Marianne, suffered delays in their flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to San Francisco. He testified that they could not get straight answers from Trans World Airlines personnel on delays and layovers that wound up pushing their arrival in San Francisco back a full day.
“We were going to visit close relatives Christmas Eve,” said Perlman. “Little did we know that this flight would turn out to be one of the worst experiences of our lives.”
But David Fuscus, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, said Shuster’s bill could backfire on consumers.
“We are certainly willing to work with Congress, we just want to make sure that everyone knows that there are costs involved,” said Fuscus, whose association represents major airlines. “And tickets may go up.”
At Virgin Atlantic, the airline that raised Shank’s ire, officials said there are two sides to every story.
“We received many letters from people on that flight, given the weather, and some of them were complimentary of how we handled the situation,” said Tim Claydon, Virgin Atlantic’s sales and marketing vice president for North America.
Claydon, who said he had Shank’s file open before him Wednesday, said the airline is “comfortable that we have the right customer service programs in place and a good record of customer service.”
He said Virgin Atlantic has been unable to substantiate Shank’s claim about the pilot and took pains to point out that Shank’s delay was weather- related.
Claydon also noted that Shank was booked through Continental Airlines and was only on a Virgin Atlantic flight to London as part of an agreement between the two airlines. Continental is responsible for any reimbursement to her, he said.
“We’ve been in constant contact with Continental,” said Claydon, who said Virgin Atlantic has gone out of its way for Shank.
That sort of talk and finger-pointing infuriates the registered nurse from Frederick even more.
“I’d like to know what kind of games these two airlines are playing,” Shank said. “They have lied and lied and lied and tried to sweep it under the rug.”
Shuster’s bill is scheduled for a second day of hearings next week, when airline industry and Transportation Department officials are slated to testify on the proposal. A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate and Vice President Al Gore this week announced his own “airline passenger fair treatment initiative.”