By Joe Brancatelli
April 28, 2010 -- Good news on the passenger-rights front: Starting on April 29, U.S. airlines will no longer be allowed to hold you hostage for endless hours on an airport tarmac.

Bad news on the passenger-rights front: So many European carriers shelled out so many millions of dollars to keep so many volcano-ash-stranded travelers temporarily housed and fed this month that the European Community's stringent flyer-protection regulations are bound to be diluted.

And, finally, befuddling news on the passenger-rights front: Airlines are changing how they package and price their core product, and doing it so quickly that long-standing government rules about full-and-fair fare disclosure suddenly look about as relevant as the Glass-Steagall Act.

Before we get too depressed about what's going wrong with passenger's rights, though, let's at least revel in the good news for a paragraph or two. After all, it took 11 years to get to our happy place--which is anywhere that is not inside a metal tube on a runway waiting on an airline bureaucrat's whim. Tomorrow's regulatory change is real and represents substantial progress for business travelers.

The new Department of Transportation protocols require airlines to allow passengers to disembark a domestic flight if it has been stuck on the ground for three hours. Airlines are also required to have ample supplies of water and food available and to ensure passengers have access to functioning restrooms and medical attention. There are commonsense exceptions that can be triggered either by the flight's captain or by air-traffic controllers.

These apparently incontestable passenger's rights were nevertheless contested by the airlines. First they raised the specter of massive cancellations rather then risk fines of as much as $27,000 a passenger should a flight be stuck on a tarmac longer than three hours. Then several petitioned the DOT for exemptions based on the fact a major runway is closed at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. Within days, airlines that didn't even serve Kennedy began demanding waivers for their airports too.

The Transportation Department last week slapped down all of the requests. The airlines argued "that it would better serve the public interest to hobble the very protections that the tarmac delay rule affords," the DOT wryly noted. "We strongly disagree. We cannot lose sight of the fact that passengers have a right to know that they will not be 'held hostage' for an unreasonable length of time."

But just as U.S. flyers were winning on the tarmac, the European Community's more comprehensive passenger-rights rules were attacked because they were working too well. As upwards of 80 percent of flights to and from European airports were grounded due to the eruption of Iceland's volcano, European carriers were forced to pay to feed and house its displaced passengers. That's because the EC's "duty of care" rules require airlines to offer reasonable reimbursement of a passenger's costs for as long as the carrier cannot fly them home. The total tab hasn't been calculated, partly because all of the estimated 9 million grounded passengers aren't home yet.

Needless to say, the bosses of Europe's most aggressive low-fare carriers, led by Michael O'Leary, the pugnacious chief executive of Ryanair, are livid. Airlines didn't cause the cancellations, so why should they pay, O'Leary bitched. He wasn't alone. While they weren't as publicly obstreperous, traditional full-service carriers such as British Airways, Lufthansa, and Air France also carped about the cost and the unfairness of forcing airlines to pay for flights canceled by government edict.

EC rules were "never designed for a situation like a massive shutdown of airspace," the commercial director of a large European airline told me. "They were aimed at protecting flyers if an airline created a long delay or cancellation. But if governments shut down the airports and won't let us fly, shouldn't governments pay for the cost of caring for the passengers who have been hurt?"

Even customer-protection groups in Europe now believe there will soon be a major rewrite to the duty-of-care regulations. They probably won't be gutted along the lines of O'Leary's proposed standard--he would limit compensation to the fare paid, which doesn't include a wide range of extra charges that carriers like Ryanair impose--but there's general agreement that passengers should expect less from their airline in the future.

When the words less and airline are used in the same sentence, it's a very short hop to the metaphoric front door of Spirit Airlines, a Florida-based carrier that fashions itself as an "ultra-low-fare" operator. In fact, however, Spirit strips virtually everything from its published fares. According to a chart at SmarterTravel.com, Spirit's supposedly ultra-low-fares do not include the price of checked bags ($20 to $45), a $5 booking fee, as much as $20 to choose a seat assignment, and $2 to $3 for a soft drink.

And Spirit has proposed still another fee beginning this summer: upwards of $45 to bring more than a single carry-on bag aboard its flights. The carry-on charge is unprecedented. Even Ryanair hasn't gone that far--and O'Leary's a guy who claims he'll soon charge passengers for using in-flight lavatories.

The point of Spirit's a la carte game, of course, is to make its fares look lower than they are. Since the computer reservation systems used by most travel agencies, corporate travel planners, and websites can only display base fares and taxes, not the ups and extras, Spirit looks cheaper than it is.

A comparison: The Spirit website lists a tax-inclusive $169.65 one-way fare between New York and Fort Lauderdale tomorrow evening. That's before all the fees, of course. JetBlue Airways' website lists a tax-inclusive $193.70 fare. But JetBlue's price includes two free carry-ons, a free checked bag, free seat selection, free at-seat television service, and free soft drinks. JetBlue doesn't charge a booking fee, either.

But wait, there's more, as the commercials often say. JetBlue's New York-Fort Lauderdale flights offer coach seats with 34 inches of legroom. That's about three inches more than the industry standard. Most Spirit flights now have seats with just 30 inches of what the industry calls "pitch." Worse, Spirit has just taken delivery of several new aircraft that offer only 28 inches of legroom. The seats don't move, either. They are bolted in place at a fixed angle of recline.

That raises the issue of passenger's rights again. The Transportation Department insists that airlines advertise the total cost of the fare, including taxes and surcharges. But now that airlines (and not just Spirit) charge extra for services that were once included in the fare, it's nearly impossible for travelers to make an apples-to-apples comparison of the real price of flying. And with Spirit using seats that are fully six inches less spacious than some of its head-to-head competitors, the supposed all-in fare disclosure has become a bad joke.

The Fine Print…
The consolidation of the car-rental industry continues apace. Hertz Global Holdings, which last year scooped Advantage Rent a Car out of bankruptcy, this week signed a $1.27 billion deal to buy the holding company of the Dollar and Thrifty rental agencies. That would vault it ahead of Enterprise Holdings, which operates the Enterprise, Alamo, and National car-rental brands. The Avis Budget Group owns the industry's two other leading firms, Avis and Budget.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.