“Get Us Off This Plane!”

When you’re trapped on an airliner, Kate Hanni wants to help.

(Courtesy Kate Hanni)

During the winter holiday season of 2006, Kate Hanni and her family were stuck on an airliner at the Austin, Texas airport for almost 10 hours with no water, no food, and no working toilet, because the airport could not provide a gate for the flight. Passengers on 124 other American Airlines flights faced similar plights that day. After they were finally released, Hanni (pronounced “Han-EYE”) and some fellow passengers formed a coalition to find ways of ensuring that airline passengers would not have to face such hardships again: The Coalition for Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, which later became FlyersRights.org. Today, Hanni is the executive director. The group’s most well-known accomplishment is the three-hour rule: In December 2009, the Department of Transportation passed a rule forcing airlines to let passengers deplane after being stuck three hours on the tarmac (a rule that was not without complications for airline operators).

The past year was a big one for FlyersRights.org: In February, after five years, Congress finally agreed on the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Bill, which Hanni says codifies into law 90 percent of the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights her group had drafted. Some of the provisions: during an extensive tarmac delay, passengers must be given food, water, and medical treatment; DOT hotline information must be posted on the Web and displayed in airports; and the DOT must set up a committee for aviation consumer protection. Hanni spoke with Senior Associate Editor Perry Turner in September.

Air & Space: How did you figure out how to get yourself heard in Washington? It doesn’t sound like you came from a political background.

Hanni: I hadn’t a clue how to handle Washington, D.C. It just sort of happened. Three weeks after my flight was stuck on the tarmac, I was in New York doing “Good Morning America” and Neil Cavuto [a Fox TV show], and my Congressman called and said, “Come to D.C. and we’ll tell you what to do, we’ll write the bill and [Barbara] Boxer/[Olympia] Snowe will do the companion bill in the Senate, and you and your group can go to all of the offices.” I had no idea that he meant 535 offices.

The simple way to explain it is that it was entirely media-driven. I was on TV almost every day for a year, a whole host of different shows, everything from “Good Morning America” to Bill O’Reilly to Dr. Phil to Rachael Ray, and that constant drumbeat, combined with my ability to put one foot forward in the face of total disagreement from Congress and not care how I looked doing it, was the key to success. As a real estate broker I pride myself in mastery of my craft, but I had to be willing to look a little dumb at times, perhaps naive, in order to make the case and get the laws and rules passed.

Honestly, working with Congress is not so different from selling real estate. It was my job to sell them, over and over again, that airline passengers should never be trapped in hot, sweaty aircraft with screaming babies and no access to food or water! Sounds easy, but it’s not. But we got the job done!

How about airline people—have you met with them as well, and what’s your overall impression?

Hanni: Well, airlines are run almost entirely by men. And a large portion of the airline management and pilots are formerly in the military, which definitely creates a very masculine, sort of tough, and unfortunately very arrogant group of people. When I was on the task force for long on-ground delays at the DOT [Department of Transportation], I was surrounded by both airline and airport executives, and they are a very arrogant and cocky bunch. I almost want to say something dirty like “It’s not the size of your planes that make the difference, it’s what you do with them,” because I get the feeling that most airline executives or airline owners have so much ego involved that they’ve forgotten what air travel in the U.S. is really all about, which is getting from A to B on time, unmolested, and hopefully with your baggage and your health intact.

What’s the difference between meeting with airline folks and meeting with people in Congress?

Hanni: There’s not a lot of difference between most members of Congress and the executives of the airlines. I would say there are a few good men and women in Congress, and I can count them on one hand.

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