Kidnapped by JetBlue: Another look at the "Passenger Bill of Rights"

The next time you go to the airport, you might want to set aside a little extra money for food, water, accommodations, and legal fees. A recent federal court ruling placed limits on the services that states can require airlines to provide to their grounded passengers.

Basically, it went down like this: late last summer, following months of record airplane delays and grounded planes, the New York State Legislature passed a "Passenger Bill of Rights," outlining requirements that airlines had to honor during extended delays.

Needless to say, the airline industry got up in arms, called out its army of lobbyists and lawyers, and began challenging the law in court. This week, the airlines finally got their wish as the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the bill of rights, stating that it overstepped the bounds of state law. Apparently, due to the interstate nature of airline travel, it can only be regulated by the federal government. The court's ruling was pretty absurd, and hinged on the argument that, if airlines were subject to state law, they might be forced to modify the food and drink that they serve on flights.

When I first heard about this little battle, I thought it sounded like a big fuss over a minor problem. After all, I've had a few times when I had to sit on an airplane for a couple of hours or had a "layover" that transformed into a "sleepover." It's a pain in the neck (often literally), but it's not really that bad, as long as you pack some snacks and a couple of books.

Then I heard about the infamous JetBlue debacle: apparently, on Valentine's day last year, several planeloads full of JetBlue passengers were stuck on the tarmac at Kennedy Airport for periods of up to ten hours. They were denied food, water, and sanitary toilets. Moreover, airline officials and flight attendants refused to let them leave the plane.

Even under the best of circumstances, ten hours on a plane can be miserable; without fresh air, water, food and clean facilities, I can imagine that it started to get downright horrendous. Moreover, given the fact that the passengers weren't allowed to return to the terminal, the situation starts to sound a little bit like imprisonment. New York's now-defunct bill of rights, which the courts ruled as excessive, would have guaranteed the JetBlue passengers access to fresh air, food and water, and clean toilets.

Just for fun, I decided to check out what the Third Geneva Convention had to say about proper treatment of Prisoners of War. Article 26 of this document stipulates that "The basic daily food rations shall be sufficient in quantity, quality and variety to keep prisoners of war in good health [...] Account shall be taken of the habitual diet of the prisoners [...] Sufficient drinking water shall be supplied to prisoners of war." The wording of this one is pretty clear and doesn't allow much wiggle room. Unless the planes were full of Muslims and the JetBlue incident took place during Ramadan, I'm pretty sure that the airline violated the Geneva Convention. Moreover, by denying its passengers access to food and water, JetBlue may well have threatened a few lives.

According to Article 25, "Prisoners of war shall be quartered under conditions as favourable as those for the forces of the Detaining Power who are billeted in the same area [...] the foregoing provisions shall apply in particular to the dormitories of prisoners of war as regards both total surface and minimum cubic space." In other words, prisoners (in this case, passengers) should be given the same amount of space as the "forces of the Detaining Power" (in this case, flight attendants). Personally, I've found that space on planes is at a premium and I usually end my flights with aches and cricks in pretty much every bone and joint. I sure would love to be able to move around like those freewheeling stewardesses...

Finally, Article 29 of the Geneva Convention states that "The Detaining Power shall be bound to take all sanitary measures necessary to ensure the cleanliness and healthfulness of camps and to prevent epidemics [...] Prisoners of war shall have for their use, day and night, conveniences which conform to the rules of hygiene and are maintained in a constant state of cleanliness." Apart from the fact that JetBlue didn't provide its passengers with hygienic "conveniences," its refusal to offer fresh air was a clear contravention of the "cleanliness and healthfulness" clause. I'm sure that this didn't result in an epidemic, but a buildup of carbon dioxide and the concentration of airborne pathogens probably resulted in the spread of quite a few diseases.

At first, I thought about how funny it was that the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals didn't feel obliged to ensure its citizens even the basic rights granted to prisoners of war. Later on, though, I started to realize that this was deadly serious; as I mentioned earlier, JetBlue's passengers were, essentially, prisoners. Moreover, given the current state of America's Homeland Security awareness, the passengers could easily be arrested if they complained too loudly or strenuously. Given these two realities, I realized that the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals was right: New York's Passenger Bill of Rights not only oversteps Federal law, but international law. In fact, there's only one court that is equipped to try JetBlue's crimes. Paging the Hague!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. From now on, he will be travelling under an assumed name.

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