ALEX COHEN, host:
This year's holiday travel season has been relatively smooth, at least compared with last year. That's when passengers were stuck on a grounded plane at JFK for more than 10 hours with no food, no water and overflowing toilets. That incident prompted a new law due to take effect in New York on January 1st. It's being called the nation's first passenger bill of rights.
I spoke earlier with New York-based travel writer George Hobica. He says the law promises relief for travelers stuck on the tarmac.
Mr. GEORGE HOBICA (Travel Writer): What it guarantees is food, water and working toilets for any delay over three hours.
COHEN: And nowadays, I know a lot of planes don't offer food for free. Is this food that you could then buy, or is this stuff that they'll give to you for free because you're stuck there?
Mr. HOBICA: Good question. I imagine that - how can they give away. But least they'll have something, you know, to buy.
COHEN: Now, I would imagine if all of a sudden the planes have to stock more food and water just in case they get grounded for a while, that means they'll need to spend a bit more. Is this going to affect ticket prices?
Mr. HOBICA: I think it's definitely going to affect the bottom line of the airlines to a certain degree, but the law is really very weak. It has very few teeth. Some commentators have thought that maybe we could make this a model for the rest of the country. And I hope not, because it really is not a very strong regulation.
COHEN: So, as you mention, this is only taking place in New York. It sounds like you're saying if you're going to expand this to other states, we need something with a bit more teeth to it.
Mr. HOBICA: Right. I would love to see a federal law that covered these kinds of incidents, but I just don't see it happening. The airline industry has such a strong lobby, and we are in such a environment right now of deregulation. I mean, back before the airlines were deregulated, we actually did have some laws that protect the passengers, and those were slowly wilted away, and now we don't.
COHEN: Is there any other model that maybe the U.S. could look towards? How do other countries deal with situations where passengers are grounded on a plane?
Mr. HOBICA: Well, over across the Atlantic, in Europe, air passengers actually do have a lot of rights, and it's quite amazing the rights they do have. If you are delayed or your flight is cancelled when you're leaving from Europe, any European airport - and this also applies to the U.S. citizens - you actually have some rights. The airline has to pay you between 125 euros and 600 euros, which is about $900 at the current exchange rates.
So if your flight from London to, say, Philadelphia on U.S. Airways is delayed for more than six hours and it's not something beyond the airline's control, you're entitled to almost $900 in compensation.
COHEN: George, one of the travel tidbits I recently heard, which I just found amazing was that many of the airlines have expanded the schedule time that it sets to get from one place to another, and that was kind of their way of banking in for the fact that they knew there was going to be a delay. I'm wondering, you know, how often is this rule going to be needed? How much is it now that people are stuck either before taking off or before landing on a tarmac somewhere.
Mr. HOBICA: It still happens quite a bit. I mean, three hours, believe it or not, is not a long time to be stuck in a plane especially out of JFK…
COHEN: Easy for you to say.
Mr. HOBICA: Well, no, because JFK has such horrible delays sometimes. The average delay that you can be sitting on, waiting to take off or sitting in the plane is sometimes just an hour, hour and a half on a, you know, busy Friday. So add some kind of other problem and you're - you can easily exceed that three hours. So we're going to see this law definitely kick in quite a few times.
COHEN: It seems like this law treats the symptom but not the cause. Wouldn't it be better to kind of try to figure out what it is that's causing these delays and fix that instead?
Mr. HOBICA: Well, that's going to cause billions and billions of dollars. And what's causing the delays is simply an antiquated air traffic control system. And the U.S. government collects all these taxes from passengers when they buy a ticket and that money has not gone to improving the air traffic control system as it was intended. So that is a long-term solution. They're starting to get there, working on it, but it's going to take 10, 15 years before we get rid of these delays by having better software and equipment.
COHEN: Travel writer George Hobica joined us from New York. Thanks so much.
Mr. HOBICA: Well, thank you.
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