By Jon Hood

October 16, 2009

A leading proponent of the Airline Passenger’s Bill of Rights making its way through Congress says that Delta Airlines hacked into her e-mail account in an effort to thwart the legislation.

Kate Hanni’s complaint, filed in federal court in Houston, accuses Delta and a contractor of conspiracy and violation of privacy, and seeks at least $11 million in damages, most of them punitive.

Hanni founded the Coalition for an Airline Passengers Bill of Rights, which is lobbying Congress to impose more passenger-friendly requirements for planes stuck on runways for long periods of time. The bill would give passengers the right to disembark any aircraft that has been grounded for at least three hours, unless such an exit is deemed unsafe or the pilot reasonably believes the plane will take off within a half-hour. The legislation also requires airlines to provide adequate access to food, water, and restrooms for grounded passengers. The bill imposes fines for violations, and requires the Department of Transportation to approve airlines’ individual plans for delayed flights.

Hanni’s computer was illegally accessed over the summer; AOL confirmed that her e-mail account had been compromised. The hacker corrupted and destroyed some files, and copied others to a still-unknown location.

The facts of Hanni’s case are bizarre and surprisingly dramatic. Hanni apparently began exchanging data about delays on Delta Airlines with an employee of Metron Aviation, a Virginia-based corporation that specializes in improving traffic flow management and reducing airline delays. Metron counts Delta as a client.

In a sworn affidavit, Frederick Foreman, the Metron employee, said that his superiors approached him in late September and informed him of the breach. They told him that the e-mails at issue were those between himself and Hanni, and that they were sent from his private, rather than company, e-mail account. Worse, Delta was furious that he had access to the flight delay data, despite the fact that it is publicly available information. Foreman was fired on the spot and escorted off of Metron’s property.

Delta is fighting back, calling Hanni’s allegations “absurd.” But the airline certainly has an interest in preventing the legislation from passing. Such a bill would cost airlines at least $40 million in lost revenue.

Airlines have fought for years to keep Bill of Rights-style legislation from being passed. In 1999, the aviation industry headed off a similar bill by promising to meet tighter self-imposed standards. But support for federal legislation surged again in August, when 47 passengers were stranded on a grounded plane in Rochester, Minnesota. Inclement weather forced Continental Express Flight 2816 to divert while en route from Houston to Minneapolis, and passengers sat on the runway for six hours before finally being cleared for takeoff. The crew ran out of food almost immediately, and the small plane’s sole toilet quickly filled up and sent a foul smell throughout the cabin.

While Flight 2816 drew its share of negative publicity, it was hardly the first such incident in recent years. In 2007, a JetBlue flight sat on the runway for 11 hours at JFK International Airport in New York, and a 2004 Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Seattle took 28 hours once all was said and done. The Northwest passengers, too, suffered through food and water shortages and an overwhelmed toilet. A passenger told the Today show that “at one point it seemed like we would have a riot towards the end.”

Hanni’s advocacy is based on personal experience. After being stranded on a tarmac in Austin in 2006, Hanni founded and began a determined push to get Congress to act.

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