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JetBlue Offers Passengers Rights, Compensation

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JetBlue Offers Passengers Rights, Compensation

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JetBlue Offers Passengers Rights, Compensation

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

JetBlue is offering compensation to the 100,000 people inconvenienced by flight delays and cancellations over the last week. And as part of a passenger's bill of rights the company released today, in the future, travelers will be able to count on vouchers and a refund if their flights don't take off. It will also limit how long a plane will sit on the tarmac.

Travelers' groups and some lawmakers are not satisfied. We'll hear from one such senator in just a minute. First, NPR's Robert Smith reports from New York.

ROBERT SMITH: Consumer groups have been asking for a federal passengers' bill of rights for months, but it took a Valentine's Day ice storm and planes stuck on the runway for up to 10 hours to give the issue traction. As members of Congress talk about legislation, JetBlue is saying that it can regulate itself.

The founder and CEO of the company, Dave Neeleman, says its own passenger bill of rights isn't necessarily a reaction to the threat.

Mr. DAVE NEELEMAN (Founder and CEO, JetBlue): We just want to do right thing by our customers. And we failed them, and we failed our crewmembers, and, you know, I wanted to create something in writing that we would have a laser beam-focus on.

SMITH: Under the plan, JetBlue customers will be compensated based on the length of the delay - from $25 for being stuck on the taxiway for hour, to a voucher for the full amount of the ticket for people stranded for more than four hours.

If your plane is sitting on the runway for more than five hours, the company promises to get you back to the terminal.

Mr. NEELEMAN: We cancel flight, you get your money back with a credit for future travel.

SMITH: Of course, there is a catch. If the delays and cancellations are beyond the company's control, then it doesn't have to pay. And that kind of caveat has consumer groups worried.

Ms. KATE HANNI (Spokesperson and Founder, Coalition for an Airline Passenger's Bill of Rights): It sounds good from the outset, but the airlines haven't been honest in the past about hanging on to their commitments.

SMITH: Kate Hanni was stuck on the runway for eight hours last December on an American Airlines flight. She's the founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passenger's Bill of Rights. She's headed to D.C. tonight to lobby members of Congress to pass a much stricter bill that will cover all airlines, including items that JetBlue didn't address.

Ms. HANNI: We want to have customer complaints responded to within 24 hours and appropriate resolution within two weeks. When people are separated from their bags for a period of 12 hours, we believe they should be compensated for anything that they should need to buy in the interim.

SMITH: And five hours, Hanni says, is far too long to sit on a plane with no air conditioning and overflowing toilets. Her group is calling for three hours max. But as the debate continues, JetBlue is lucky to have a fairly loyal customer base that might be willing to give them another try. At JFK Airport in New York City yesterday, Jeff Hazelton(ph) was waiting to a flight to Florida, and he says that JetBlue is still his favorite airline.

Mr. JEFF HAZELTON: They have been pretty flawless in the past, and this is one mistake. I don't think they'll make it again. I think they're going to learn from it.

SMITH: Hazelton has heard about the passenger's bill of rights and thought it was a great idea.

Mr. HAZELTON: Yeah, I like that a lot. This way, you don't have to sit on the plane for so long. There's elderly people, sick people on there, so it's not fair. It's unconstitutional.

SMITH: JetBlue CEO Neeleman says the compensation plan will cost the company around $30 million for this storm alone. That's $10 million in refunds, $16 million in free vouchers and $4 million in extra crew expenses. Although he didn't rule out raising fares to pay for it, he says that if customers don't return to the airline, JetBlue may have to drop fares to get them back.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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