Airlines Will Be Affected by New Federal Ozone Standards

On October 1, 2015, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) adopted stricter regulation on ozone emissions that will fall heavily on California, and most particularly on the transportation sector, including airlines.  The new standard strengthens limits on ground level ozone to 70 parts per billion (“PPB”), down from 75 PPB adopted in 2008.  The EPA’s action arises from the mandate of the Clean Air Act (“CAA”), from which the EPA derives its regulatory powers, 42 U.S.C. § 7409(a)(1), and which requires that pollution levels be set so as to protect public health with an “adequate margin of safety.  42 U.S.C. § 7409(b).  

The change has inspired significant controversy throughout the country, but most particularly in Southern California which purportedly has the nation’s worst air quality and has already failed to meet previous ozone standards.  The issues arise out of the likelihood that the new standards will require steep emissions cuts falling most heavily on the transportation sector including trains, trucks, ships and, not least, aircraft.  
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Airline Mergers Seriously Impacting Prices and Services

A recent analysis of the relationship of airline mergers to airline service and pricing reports the unsurprising result that, since the mergers of Southwest Airlines and AirTran, United Airlines and Continental Airlines, and Delta Airlines and Northwest Airlines, airline capacity measured by the number of available seats, has gone down across the board at the top 100 airports in the 48 contiguous states since 2005 while prices have increased equally broadly.  For example, at the largest airport in the United States, Atlanta-Hartsfield, the number of seats has fallen by 12.3%, while the average fare price has increased by 3.7%.  Similarly, at Boston Logan, the number of seats has dropped by 10%, while the fares have increased at an average of 2.2%.  Those changes, moreover, are not limited to the top 100 airports.  At secondary airports in metropolitan areas with multiple airports, the same trend persists.  At Oakland Airport in the San Francisco Bay area, fares have increased 6%.  And those ominous trends appear to continue.

In response to the proposal of a merger between American Airlines and U.S. Airways, the Justice Department promptly brought suit on the grounds of, among other things, restraint of trade and violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.  Last week, the Justice Department settled with the airlines on the promise by the airlines to surrender gates and slots at major airports. 

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Make No Mistake: The Supreme Court's Decision on Obamacare Has No Impact on Applicable Aviation and Airport Law

It has come to our attention that a legal colleague has authored a blog analogizing the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the Obama Administration’s health care legislation (“Obamacare”), National Federation of Independent Business, et al. v. Sebelius, et al., 567 U.S. ___ (2012), to the Federal statutes preempting state and local control of the regulation of aircraft operations and their free and open access to airports.  The blog attempts to make the case that, because the Court ruled that the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution does not justify requiring all uninsured Americans to purchase health insurance, so the Commerce Clause somehow cannot justify exclusive Federal regulation of the “safety of navigable airspace,” 49 U.S.C. § 40103(a), and airlines “rates, routes and charges,” 49 U.S.C. § 41713(b)(1).  This analysis not only manifestly misapprehends the clear distinction between the two cases, but can also send a damaging message to those who justifiably seek legally supportable means of controlling airport impacts. 

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American Airlines Declares Bankruptcy

This morning, November 29, 2011, American Airlines, one of the biggest airlines in the world, announced that it had declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It is not unexpected news, as American has been declaring losses in excess of $1 billion per year for some time. What remains to be seen is, among other things: (1) whether American will review its devotion to the “hub and spoke” system and begin a return to “point to point” routes that have allowed Southwest to remain profitable for a period of 35 years; (2) whether American will maintain its schedules throughout its system during the bankruptcy; (3) whether American will continue to court its best customers with the continuation of the “Advantage Miles” program; and (4) perhaps most urgent, whether American will enhance its customer service, in the model of Southwest Airlines, in order to retain and attract customers. The story is still unwritten. Stay tuned.

LAX/American Airlines Commuter Facility Project Avoids Environmental Review

Yet another project at Los Angeles International Airport (“LAX”) has skated under the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”). The project, the “American Airlines Commuter Facility Improvement Project,” allegedly constitutes a mere replacement of the facilities once occupied by United Airlines. Not exactly. The project actually includes, but is not limited to: (1) more than doubling the size of the passenger terminal/administration building to add passenger accommodations and office space; (2) addition of an almost 10,000 square foot building for baggage handling, office space and storage; and (3) replacement of a remote gate, accessed by foot or bus, with an enclosed contact gate such as those which are used inside the main terminals.

Despite the expansionary nature of the project, Los Angeles World Airports (“LAWA”), the Department of the owner, City of Los Angeles, responsible for operating LAX does not give so much as a passing nod to compliance with CEQA. If the project could simply be described as “new lease with American Airlines,” as a recent “Transmittal for Review of LAX Tenant Improvement Project” would have the public believe, the omission to conduct environmental review might be justified by a categorical exclusion from CEQA, 14 Cal. Code Regs. section 15301. That exclusion, however, does not apply here. The project, far from being “negligible” in scope, clearly constitutes a massive expansion of the previous passenger hold room and other passenger serving facilities.

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Passengers Detained Have Constitutional and Other Legal Rights

The airlines are at it again! This time it’s Continental Express, Flight 2816, detaining passengers in the aircraft, without food, water or adequate sanitary facilities on the tarmac in Rochester, Minnesota, for an unbelievable six (6) hours before freeing them to enter the terminal (not counting another 2.5 hours wait to board the same plane to complete their trip to Minneapolis, only 85 miles away).

There is no doubt that the airline acted stupidly and irresponsibly by not providing a bus to complete the trip, or allowing the passengers back into the terminal. Ultimately, however, it’s the fault of the passengers who allowed themselves to be treated in that fashion. As Chevalier, Allen & Lichman has stated in prior postings (see, “Trapped Airline Passengers Have Rights,” posted April 7, 2008), the airlines when faced with this situation have three choices:

  1. Take off if its safe to do so;
  2. If not, allow passengers to leave the aircraft and/or provide alternate transportation or hotel facilities; or,
  3. Face legal action brought by passengers for violation of the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as potential state law causes of action such as false imprisonment.

First, it is true that airlines are not allowed to operate when conditions are unsafe such as during inclement weather or when the safety of the passengers is at stake (for example, during the recent bomb scare at LaGuardia). Therefore, where the existence of such conditions can be established, the airline is justified in waiting on the ground until, but only until, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) Air Traffic Control allows it to join a queue for takeoff. Sometimes this takes over two hours. If you have any doubt, call FAA at 1-866-TELL-FAA (1-866-835-5322). That office will know whether conditions at the origin or destination require the delay. The usual problem at this stage is lack of communication from the flight crew. It is far more commonplace to see them talking among themselves than sharing status updates with their paying customers. A radical change in company policies regarding passenger communication would go far in remedying passenger unrest.

Second, when even the normal communication doesn’t seem to be accurate or timely, and you have run out of patience, you may calmly and politely confront the crew with the choice of taking off, or, alternatively, allowing passengers to exit the aircraft. This is where individual responsibility kicks in. If no one asks, the crew has no reason to act. After all, FAA regulations require that the crew leave the plane when its federally mandated shift is up. They will get out even if you can’t. Most importantly, decline to take “no” for an answer. Poll the other passengers, and if there is a consensus that the time already spent is unreasonable and unjustified, and conditions on the plane are deteriorating to the point of health concern, get off the plane, either through the normal exits or through the emergency exit. After all, it is an emergency, isn’t it?

Finally, and most important, don’t be afraid that, by taking these steps, you will be violating the law. In fact, in our view, it is the airline and, by extension, the governmental entities that finance and operate the airport that are violating the law. Specifically, airlines operate on government funded facilities. Airports are funded 80-90% by the federal government and the remainder partially by state and local governments, with the airlines paying for part of the remainder. The tarmac upon which passengers are detained, as well as the Air Traffic Controllers who may provide the rationale for that detention are government funded. Consequently, substantially all activities on an airport may be subject to federal and state statutes including the U.S. Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits arrest and/or detention without probable cause or the consent of the detained. It is therefore doubly important to protest the detention so as to prevent acquiescence from being construed as consent. Finally, state statutes such as those prohibiting false imprisonment may also apply. However, there would certainly be an argument that such state statutes are preempted by federal law.  In the absence of comprehensive federal legislation addressing the issue of unlawful detention on aircraft, the preemption argument would likely fail. 

In short, it is not essential to the vindication of passengers’ rights that Congress pass a new statute or a “Passengers’ Bill of Rights,” because we already have a Bill of Rights that applies. However some support from Congress, for example, in legislating a limit on the number of hours passengers can be detained would show the public that their representatives are there for them and not just for campaign contributions from airline lobbyists.

Most important, if you’re “mad as hell” you “don’t have to take it anymore.” The public need not cower from taking all legal steps necessary to defend its own rights and welfare against the airlines who wrongfully cloak themselves in governmental authority without accepting governmental responsibility.


Trapped Airline Passengers Have Rights

UPDATE:  See also Dr. Lichman's recent post "Passengers Detained Have Constiutional and Other Legal Rights," which was posted August 13, 2009.

Most of us have been caught in airplanes delayed on the tarmac for what seems like an eternity.  Some of us have really been trapped for as long as 10 hours, often without food, water or sanitary facilities.  Some states, like New York, have attempted to pass legislation that would guarantee stalled passengers at least these basic needs.  Their efforts have not met with success in the courts.  As recently as the end of March, 2008, the Federal 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the New York law as preempted by Federal law governing airline regulation.  

In Chevalier, Allen & Lichman’s view, however, legislation on this subject, though well intended, is superfluous, because passengers are already protected by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  Airlines operate on airport property.  Airports receive funding for their development from the Federal government.  In fact, substantially all airfield facilities such as runways, taxiways and navigation aides, as well as a portion of terminal development, are paid for by funds appropriated by Congress and administered by the Federal Aviation Administration.  Moreover, the vast majority, if not all, commercial airports are run by public entities.  Finally, Air Traffic Control is operated directly and exclusively by the FAA.  

Therefore, even though airlines are private companies, they operate on, and, are in fact, dependent upon Federal facilities.  Citizens using those facilities are, in turn, protected by the Federal and State Constitutions, including the constitutional prohibition on “unreasonable search and seizure” set forth in the Fourth Amendment.

It is beyond dispute that imprisoning passengers against their will on a snow bound plane, on an icy airport apron, without food, for an indeterminate period, and without any probable cause to believe they have violated the law, is both “unreasonable” and a “seizure” of their persons.  As a passenger, you may be within your rights to deplane if it is safe to do so.  In the final analysis, you will have a cognizable claim against the airport operator and the airline, both consumers of Federal dollars, under the United States and State Constitutions, and potentially against the airline under state law for false imprisonment, even without additional State or Federal legislation.