In what must be one of the longest stories ever published in travel industry publication Travel Weekly – over 6,000 words – airline rights advocate Kate Hanni is accused of poor leadership, questionable motives and dubious integrity.
Hanni found a calling when she was one of the passengers involved in the incident that saw American Airlines strand 121 Dallas-bound flights and thousands of passengers on Dec. 29th, 2006. Some passengers were forced to remain onboard aircraft for more than nine hours with fouled toilets and little food or water. The event triggered an outcry in the media, on blogs and in Washington.
One of those passengers was Hanni, an attractive, articulate California real estate agent. Shortly after, Hanni became a high-profile passenger-rights advocate. The organization she founded – FlyersRights.org – is credited with driving the agenda that three years later has resulted in U.S. legislation limiting tarmac delays to three hours.
Hanni’s organization should be celebrating its success, but according to a series of interviews conducted by Travel Weekly the group is rife with turmoil, as current and former members of the group’s inner circle are slamming Hanni’s leadership and integrity.
Among other complaints, the Travel Weekly interviewees say Hanni has misled Congress, manipulated airline ‘report card’ data as part of a vendetta against Delta, exaggerated membership numbers and publicly maligned people she considers rivals to her own influence and power.
They also suggest financial impropriety by saying that more than three years after founding FlyersRights.org, Hanni has yet to file a required non-profit tax document with the Internal Revenue Service.
Hanni has denied every allegation except for the filing of the document, which she says she plans to do next month. She told Travel Weekly she has always been upfront with Congress and has accurately represented the size of her group.
In her public image, Hanni portrays herself as a passenger-rights advocate under constant siege by the airlines. She has referred to herself as “the poster child for strandings” and says she gave up a $400,000 a year real estate career to become the Ralph Nader of the airline industry.
She has no intentions of ending her crusade: “My intention is to be THE consumer advocate for airline passenger issues that aren’t addressed by anyone else in any meaningful way,” she once wrote to Travel Weekly. “I hope to be a consumer advocate for the rest of my life.”
She has also displayed what some see as a degree of paranoia – or at least a flair for the dramatic. She has filed a lawsuit accusing Delta of hacking into her personal computers. And she is convinced the airline industry is out to get her.
“I understand there will always be people who will try to destroy us,” Hanni wrote in an email to Travel Weekly last fall. “I have some folks in the background that ABOLUSTELY [sic] don’t want the airlines to know they are helping us. Very high-profile people. Sorry I’m so emotional. I’m just living in a lot of fear right now.”
She also personalizes her battles with the airlines, which members of her organization say puts the focus too much on her at the expense of the mission. “No one can possibly know what it’s like to commit yourself every day to a process that pays no money, provides little in terms of rewards, only to see if our benevolent government has the will to do what’s actually right for us,” she told Travel Weekly.