Though everyone's crying gloom and doom about U.S. aviation, there are several positive recent developments to report.
• Pro-tection for airline passengers: First, in a unanimous vote, the Senate Com-merce Commit-tee approved legislation last month — the so-called Airline Passenger Bill of Rights — giving passengers the option of leaving a plane that has been stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours. (The bill provides that pilots can extend that deadline by 30 minutes if they feel that departure is imminent.) Passengers who elect to stay on board can exercise their option to leave all over again after another three hours have elapsed.
While the bill will not reach the U.S. Senate floor in the next several weeks — the Health Care Reform Act will occupy the senators' attention until then — it seems realistic to hope that the passenger bill of rights will be advanced for an actual Senate vote sometime later this year. And there is, at long last, hope that approval by the House of Representatives as well will finally result in the measure's enactment this year (though airline lobbyists are waging a frantic campaign to defeat the legislation).
If you've ever been confined to a plane on the tarmac for three hours, as I have, you will agree that this grueling experience is one that should not be visited on anyone. The instrument for expressing your views to Congress, and urging that they pass the measure, is FlyersRights.org (www.flyersrights.org), which has been lobbying for such a measure since 2007. According to the group's founder, Kate Hanni, a frightening 1,232 flights from American airports were kept confined to the tarmac for longer than three hours in 2008.
• Trans-Atlantic airfares keep coming down: The collapse of trans-Atlantic airfares continues apace. Although, for some time now, the upstart European carrier Eurofly (www.euroflyusa.com) has been offering a round-trip fare of $455 between New York and Rome from now until Oct. 9, a half-dozen other carriers have entered the cut-rate New York-to-Rome market by permitting Go-Today.com (www.go-today.com) to offer an air-and-land package using their flights that will cost $599 from Sept. 3 all the way to Oct. 31 (the price will then drop to $549 in November).
Five hundred and ninety-nine dollars is a remarkable round-trip fare for September and October flights to balmy Rome, especially when additional taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges amount to an additional $150 (as they do on the Go-Today package). And note, as well, that Go-Today's $599 also includes four nights with breakfast daily at a hotel in Rome.
Thus far, in test bookings, I've discovered several European carriers that provide the air for Go-Today's package, flying to Rome via their own capital city. But even Alitalia, going nonstop to Rome, is used on occasional dates by Go-Today.
An important limitation: The $599 price is available only if you fly in both directions on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday; flights on other days bring a $35 surcharge. This means that after using the four hotel nights offered by Go-Today, you will have to extend the date of your return flight to a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday in order to escape the surcharge. This is easily done (and indeed, encouraged) on the Go-Today.com Web site.
• First- and business-class fares are now more easily cut: Evidence is growing that more and more airlines are allowing an outlet of American Express to cut their international first- and business-class fares by up to 60 percent. The unexpected discounter is located at an out-of-the-center 108 W. 81st St. in New York City, and alternates between the use of two different telephone numbers: a toll-free 866-945-8046, and a local 212-595-1567. Its Web site is www.cookamerican.travel.
And finally, this odd member of an otherwise super-dignified chain adds another world-famous name — Cook — to its title (thus, "Cook American Express Travel"), but never explains the identification. Despite all the confusion, it boldly advertises "Last Minute Business Class Deals" and "Last Minute Domestic & Economy Deals," stressing (on its Web site) that it mainly provides cut-rate tickets for All Nippon Airlines, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines.