A federal judge Thursday dismissed a challenge to a new state law requiring more humane treatment for passengers stuck on planes that have been grounded for more than three hours by bad weather or for other reasons.
Northern District of New York Court Judge Lawrence E. Kahn held that the new law, called the Passenger Bill of Rights by its legislative sponsors, is not pre-empted by the federal Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, as a group representing major U.S. passenger and cargo airlines contend.
The pre-emption clause of the federal act, 49 U.S.C. §41713(b)(1), prohibits states from creating laws "related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier." Kahn held that the state law, which would require that passengers be given water, fresh air and working toilets if delays stretch past three hours, affects neither an airline's "price," "route" nor "service."
It is a legitimate use of state police power to protect the health and safety of its citizens, the judge held in Air Transport Association of America v. Cuomo, 1:07-cv-1103.
"The Passenger Bill of Rights is an exercise in state protection of the public health," ruled Kahn, who heard oral arguments in the case Tuesday. "Fresh air, water, sanitation and food are necessities in the extreme situation in which this act applies; it threatens the public health to contain people on grounded airplanes for hours without these necessities, particularly, though not exclusively, if passengers include diabetics, young children, the sick or the frail."
Kahn denied the motion by the Air Transport Association (ATA) for summary judgment or a preliminary injunction to prevent the state law from taking effect on Jan. 1, 2008. And though the judge noted that the state did not ask for summary judgment dismissing the airlines' complaint, he was granting it anyway.
"Because summary judgment for the state is appropriate as a matter of law, granting such relief at this time serves the goal of judicial efficiency and is clearly within the authority of the Court," the judge wrote.
The legislation creating the law, (A8406B/S5050C), was drawn up in response to the lengthy delays due to winter storms endured earlier this year by passengers in New York City-area airports on Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day. Rather than return to the terminals, several airlines kept passengers on board and planes on the runway in hopes that breaks in the weather would allow the planes to take off.
Some passengers were confined for 10 hours or more.
In addition to requiring airlines to give passengers on flights grounded for more than three hours water, fresh air and working toilets, the law also creates an advocate for airline passengers within the Consumer Protection Board and empowers the state attorney general to seek civil penalties of up to $1,000 per violation per passenger.
The Air Transport Association said it may appeal Kahn's ruling.
"ATA believes that the Court has misinterpreted the law," a statement from the association said. "We will consider our options, including filing an appeal. ATA's sole purpose in filing this lawsuit was to preserve the principle that commercial aviation is best regulated by one source -- the federal government -- and not 50 individual states."
The legislative sponsors of the act praised Kahn's ruling.
Sen. Charles J. Fuschillo, R-Freeport, said in an interview, "This is the right law to protect consumers who pay a lot of money to fly on airlines. They should be treated better."
Assemblyman Michael N. Gianaris, D-Queens, said, "That's about as good as it gets. A shot has been fired in support of the flying public throughout this country. Judge Kahn deserves enormous credit for standing up to an industry that has spent countless dollars to defeat the rights of passengers to be treated like human beings."
The Washington, D.C.-based Air Transport Association of America represents airlines carrying more than 90 percent of the passenger and cargo traffic in the country. It said its member airlines operate more than 6,000 departing flights daily at nine airports in New York state.
New York's Passenger Bill of Rights is the first state law of its kind in the nation, according to the Air Transport Association.