Congress Tries To Land On the Flight Delay Problem

As JetBlue Airways CEO David Neeleman introduces the carrier's new passenger bill of rights, he may just barely be beating Congress to the punch on the same kind of measure.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Michael Thompson, both California Democrats, said they planned to introduce legislation addressing flight delays and cancellations, as well as lost or damaged luggage.

Their proposals vary in scope. Boxer's plan gives passengers the right to get off a plane under certain circumstances, while Thompson's would force airlines to better inform and assist passengers suffering delays and lost baggage.

Congress pushed for similar legislation about a decade ago without success. The European Union mandated compensation for delays several years ago.

The latest push follows JetBlue's staggering problems dealing with an ice storm in the Northeast last Wednesday. Some passengers were stuck on planes for hours because of icy runways. The incident triggered a chain reaction that led to the cancellation of some 1,100 flights over the next few days.

JetBlue quickly apologized for the Valentines Day snafu but failed to limit the problem to one day. The airline responded by issuing its own passenger bill of rights, which includes financial compensation for delays of various durations.

Neeleman says passengers delayed one to two hours on departure would receive $25; if the delay is two to four hours, they get $50. Anyone delayed four to six hours would receive a free one-way ticket. Passengers delayed more than six hours would receive a free round-trip ticket.

Under JetBlue’s plan, passengers delayed 30 minutes to an hour on arrival would receive $25; $100 if delayed one to two hours and a free one-way ticket if delayed two to three hours. A passenger whose arrival is late four hours or more would receive a free round-trip ticket.

In a call-in news conference with reporters Tuesday, Neeleman said his decision to issue the bill of rights wasn’t influenced by Sen. Boxer’s criticism of his airline.

“We just want to do the right thing by our customers,” he told reporters. “We failed them.”

In drafting the airline’s customer bill of rights, Neeleman said he reviewed existing mandates of the European Union, but didn’t adopt them because the European guidelines didn’t meet the needs of U.S. patrons. He wanted to carefully define events that can be controlled by JetBlue and those that can’t. He noted that most passengers want to continue to their destination, even after a lengthy delay at departure, and it therefore makes no sense to require that passengers be returned to the terminal after waiting a specified time.

“Congress doesn’t have a clue,” airline analyst Michael Boyd, president of the aviation consulting firm The Boyd Group, told CNBC's "Squawk On The Street." “We have an air traffic control system that’s delaying passengers every day and (U.S. Sen.) Barbara Boxer doesn’t say a word about it. We’re basically ‘soap-boxing’ now. Congress would do better to worry about immigration and the Iraq war and let David Neeleman run his airline.”