Hanni: Congressmen and senators almost entirely fly to work. So that’s one issue. The airlines, like any large corporation, have buckets of money to lobby with and buy all the ink they need. So a poor organization like ours has to work harder than anyone ever would, and give up just about everything that’s important to you for at least five years, and then maybe you’ll succeed at getting a law passed. Frankly, what we did that was genius is rope in the media. We started a hotline in June of 2007, and every single person that called us who was on a plane stuck for over three hours, we had them get out their cameras, video, or audio and start recording the incident. Then we’d have them send it to me, and I would package it for the networks, where I had methodically documented my sources, bookers, and producers, and they would put the victims on TV, and usually I would be on talking about their rights (or lack thereof). That’s what made our issues really take off (pun intended).
What’s the very worst story you’ve heard about being stranded on an airplane?
Hanni: On the night of our incident, there was a diabetic paraplegic man who went into shock after seven hours on the tarmac. Luckily his brother was with him, so he was able to alert the crew to the problem; unfortunately, American Airlines wasn’t going to allow any planes in to gates that night. The paramedics boarded their aircraft and the passengers revolted, and so the captain turned the lights out. As the paramedics were trying to get this man off the plane (and they couldn’t), the passengers were flashing SOS signals with their cell phones out the windows of the aircraft. Ultimately that plane was allowed to go in to a gate, and that man was taken away by ambulance.
What’s your most urgent goal now?
Hanni: Our most urgent goal, truthfully, is legroom in economy class. The FAA has no minimum standards for legroom, but they claim that they run drills with every different type of seat configuration such that in an emergency all passengers can egress in 90 seconds. They run the drill on flat ground with employees who are all healthy, fit, and in tennis shoes. I absolutely cannot believe with obesity on the rise and what feels like the seats getting smaller and definite decreases in seat pitch [leg room] that in an emergency everyone could get out in 90 seconds. It defies logic: If you’ve been in economy class at any time in the last four or five years, there is no way it’s safe to continue allowing airlines to push more rows of seats and eliminate leg room. It’s also a health and safety issue regarding DVT [deep-vein thrombosis, or blood clots, which form on longer flights]. If you cannot move or are immobilized between a couple of larger people, it could be your last flight.
What’s the status of your group Flyers’ Rights?
Hanni: From a structural standpoint, FlyersRights.org is running extremely smoothly, with 22 full and part-time volunteers and a couple of part-time employees who write our newsletters and help with press releases and bookkeeping. But as are typical with grassroots organizations, once we got our primary goals met, our donations decreased. I don’t think the public realizes that we run a toll-free, international, totally free service: a hotline manned by volunteers to help air travelers with their every urgent need. We advocate with Congress and the DOT continually to pass laws and rulemakings that protect them, and are responsible not just for the tarmac delay rule but seven rules that host about 60 different rights, including doubling and then re-doubling of passenger-bumping compensation, refunds of baggage fees if bags are lost, international flights being included in the rule, full-fare advertising, a ban on post-purchase price ticket increases, ability to hold a ticket for 24 hours without a cancellation or re-faring fee, a “no child left unbuckled” law that states the airlines must tell parents with toddler or infant seats whether or not the seat they are purchasing will have space enough for their aft-facing seats, and on and on! And we continue to get more rules. We anticipate another rule will be announced that will force the airlines to make transparent all of the hidden ancillary fees so they can reasonably predict the cost of their air travel.
We are always on the edge. There are very few foundations that fund an organization like ours, and to date we have applied for several grants but have not received any approvals.
Give us a state-of-the-art of commercial air travel today.
Hanni: I’ve always LOVED flying; there is something so amazing about it. But the customer service side, and frankly the lack of dignity and common sense, have devolved the airlines to a method of travel worse than Greyhound.