“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.

Airline folks are for sure going to say “No” to changing the way they operate or helping out the flying public, and Congress will at least pretend to help.

What’s the most discouraging part of the lobbying work?

Hanni: The most discouraging part of what we do isn’t the difficulties dealing with Congress or the DOT, it’s the fake groups that have sprung up saying they are airline passengers rights groups when they are actually either lobbyists for the industry or being bribed by the industry to suck up the space that we created for true airline passengers rights advocacy. I’ve become much more cynical than I used to be about the government and how corporate America runs our government.

What’s the present status of the three-hour rule?

Hanni: The rule is in place since April of 2010 and is working very well. The airlines have managed to cut the tarmac events of three hours or more to a statistical zero. And the airlines have stopped complaining about the rule, so from my point of view and with on-time departures and arrivals getting better, the rule appears to have created a sort of forced efficiency in the system. No longer can airlines overschedule at peak hours and allow jets to warehouse people on tarmacs; they now have to live within their means, if you know what I mean!

Under what circumstances are airliners allowed to exceed it?

Hanni: If the airport or air traffic control cannot allow the jet in due to terrorism, a pandemic or other critical issue, or if it would truly disrupt airport operations, or if there were a hurricane or force majeure [an extreme circumstance or event that cannot be controlled], one that truly prevents a plane from pulling up to a gate.

At present, the three-hour limit is a DOT rule, which can be overturned by a new president, and not a federal law, which is permanent. What do you think it would take to turn the rule into a law?

Hanni: I think if we were to have a Republican administration that had the will to overturn the DOT rule…and the tarmac incidents began increasing and the public outcry were loud enough, we would get an actual law. But isn’t it a shame that is the way it works?

What’s the resistance?

Hanni: Congressmen and senators almost entirely fly to work. So that’s one issue. The airlines, like any large corporation, have buckets of money to lobby with and buy all the ink they need. So a poor organization like ours has to work harder than anyone ever would, and give up just about everything that’s important to you for at least five years, and then maybe you’ll succeed at getting a law passed. Frankly, what we did that was genius is rope in the media. We started a hotline in June of 2007, and every single person that called us who was on a plane stuck for over three hours, we had them get out their cameras, video, or audio and start recording the incident. Then we’d have them send it to me, and I would package it for the networks, where I had methodically documented my sources, bookers, and producers, and they would put the victims on TV, and usually I would be on talking about their rights (or lack thereof). That’s what made our issues really take off (pun intended).

What’s the very worst story you’ve heard about being stranded on an airplane?

Hanni: On the night of our incident, there was a diabetic paraplegic man who went into shock after seven hours on the tarmac. Luckily his brother was with him, so he was able to alert the crew to the problem; unfortunately, American Airlines wasn’t going to allow any planes in to gates that night. The paramedics boarded their aircraft and the passengers revolted, and so the captain turned the lights out. As the paramedics were trying to get this man off the plane (and they couldn’t), the passengers were flashing SOS signals with their cell phones out the windows of the aircraft. Ultimately that plane was allowed to go in to a gate, and that man was taken away by ambulance.

What’s your most urgent goal now?

Hanni: Our most urgent goal, truthfully, is legroom in economy class. The FAA has no minimum standards for legroom, but they claim that they run drills with every different type of seat configuration such that in an emergency all passengers can egress in 90 seconds. They run the drill on flat ground with employees who are all healthy, fit, and in tennis shoes. I absolutely cannot believe with obesity on the rise and what feels like the seats getting smaller and definite decreases in seat pitch [leg room] that in an emergency everyone could get out in 90 seconds. It defies logic: If you’ve been in economy class at any time in the last four or five years, there is no way it’s safe to continue allowing airlines to push more rows of seats and eliminate leg room. It’s also a health and safety issue regarding DVT [deep-vein thrombosis, or blood clots, which form on longer flights]. If you cannot move or are immobilized between a couple of larger people, it could be your last flight.

What’s the status of your group Flyers’ Rights?

Hanni: From a structural standpoint, FlyersRights.org is running extremely smoothly, with 22 full and part-time volunteers and a couple of part-time employees who write our newsletters and help with press releases and bookkeeping. But as are typical with grassroots organizations, once we got our primary goals met, our donations decreased. I don’t think the public realizes that we run a toll-free, international, totally free service: a hotline manned by volunteers to help air travelers with their every urgent need. We advocate with Congress and the DOT continually to pass laws and rulemakings that protect them, and are responsible not just for the tarmac delay rule but seven rules that host about 60 different rights, including doubling and then re-doubling of passenger-bumping compensation, refunds of baggage fees if bags are lost, international flights being included in the rule, full-fare advertising, a ban on post-purchase price ticket increases, ability to hold a ticket for 24 hours without a cancellation or re-faring fee, a “no child left unbuckled” law that states the airlines must tell parents with toddler or infant seats whether or not the seat they are purchasing will have space enough for their aft-facing seats, and on and on! And we continue to get more rules. We anticipate another rule will be announced that will force the airlines to make transparent all of the hidden ancillary fees so they can reasonably predict the cost of their air travel.

We are always on the edge. There are very few foundations that fund an organization like ours, and to date we have applied for several grants but have not received any approvals.

Give us a state-of-the-art of commercial air travel today.

Hanni: I’ve always LOVED flying; there is something so amazing about it. But the customer service side, and frankly the lack of dignity and common sense, have devolved the airlines to a method of travel worse than Greyhound.

My husband’s [work] affords us a lot of travel to foreign countries, particularly [in] Asia—and I have to say almost all of the foreign air carriers still have a far higher level of service than our domestic air carriers do. I truly believe that if we were to re-regulate the industry we could bring some semblance of dignity and predictability back to the air travel experience, and the airlines would again become robust.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.