Embarrassing is the word for the Air Transport Association's abrupt cancellation the other day of a press conference called to ballyhoo the airlines' preemptive strike against a host of passenger fairness bills up for consideration in Congress.

Determined to beat legislators (and, perhaps, the Department of Transportation) to the punch, the ATA was prepared to unveil its own "voluntary" code of behavior when it pulled a Houdini and made the news briefing disappear before the eyes of assembled reporters.

Apparently, the ATA presentation was bumped after last-minute protests by Senate leaders, including the influential John McCain (R-Ariz.), that they had not signed off on the airlines' initiative.

But do not be fooled. The ATA will be back. According to observers, McCain and others are negotiating with the airline group to toughen up provisions of the voluntary industry code, which, when formalized, might well take the steam out of the movement to legislate enforceable rules of conduct.

Certainly, if McCain -- the sponsor of one fairness bill himself and sympathetic to provisions in others -- signs on to self-imposed ATA mandates, a powerful force behind passenger fairness legislation will be compromised.

At the same time, ASTA is advancing its own consumer protection legislation, which incorporates the provisions of its year-old Air Traveler's Bill of Rights into one comprehensive measure. The Society's manifesto included the right to access unbiased travel information and to use back-to-back and hidden-city tickets.

But with an agreement seemingly imminent between the ATA and influential members of Congress, we can only wonder if ASTA's legislative initiative will prove to be too little, too late and if the airlines, for all intents and purposes, will continue to be entrusted with monitoring their own conduct.

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