The newest FAA reauthorization bills in the House and the Senate include several proposals that could improve air travel for consumers, as well as two terrible ideas and one that could be a blockbuster for travelers fed up with unreasonable airline fees.
House and Senate Agreement
Committees from both houses of Congress generally agree on several measures for the upcoming FAA reauthorization bill, and the final legislation will likely include these provisions.
Good idea #1: Remove any airline-generated limits on compensation for volunteers willing to relinquish seats on oversold flights. Delta and United already upped their limits to $10,000, which ought to be high enough to get somebody to take a later flight.
Good idea #2: Continue the Advisory Committee for Airline Consumer Protection. Although the committee also includes industry representatives, it’s the only official avenue for ongoing consumer input into DOT policy.
Good idea #3: No more forcing people off an airplane after they’re onboard and seated. Did we really need this? Unfortunately, maybe we did.
Annoying idea: Ban cell phone calls in flight, but allow VoIP (voice over internet protocol) calls via internet connection. This solves any potential safety issues, since calls via Wi-Fi won’t interfere with airplane navigation systems the way regular cell phone calls would. But it ignores the fact that most passengers don’t really want to listen to noisy fellow flyers phoning their way across the country.
Senate Bill Ideas
The Senate proposals include several other good ideas that would benefit travelers, plus a blockbuster that was just added June 29.
Blockbuster proposal: The Senate committee, in a bipartisan vote, added an amendment requiring the DOT to “issue regulations prescribing which airline fees are unreasonable and therefore prohibited or limited to a certain amount based on DOT’s assessment of airline costs. Fees to be scrutinized by DOT are flight cancellation fees, checked baggage fees, seat selection fees, and flight change fees,” according to the text of an amendment from Senator Markey (D-MA). DOT will also be able to regulate “any other fee imposed by an air carrier relating to a flight in interstate air transportation,” according to the amendment. This is huge, and it will clearly face serious opposition by airlines. Several of the named fees—and others—have nothing to do with cost; they’re designed to affect the sort of tickets consumers buy. It’s hard to believe that this proposal will survive in the House, but stranger things have happened.
Good idea #4: Airlines must refund fees as well as base airfares when they issue refunds. Apparently, some airlines now keep the fees—a real gouge.
Good idea #5: Conduct rigorous studies to determine whether the airlines should provide a minimum seat pitch for safety reasons and to accommodate passengers with reduced mobility.
The Senate bill also recommends a bunch of improvements in disclosure of fares, fees, and access to the DOT complaint system.
House Bill Ideas
The House proposals also include some traveler benefits, but there are two terrible ideas that would materially harm travelers.
Good idea #6: Define airline IT problems as the airline’s responsibility with regard to contractual requirements to provide meals, accommodations, and other benefits in cases of extensive delays or cancellations. “The computer done it” should not be an excuse to let airlines off the hook for passenger protections.
Bad idea #1: Allow the Secretary of Transportation to block foreign airlines from serving the U.S. “after finding a carrier would erode labor standards because it was established in a country other than its majority owners to avoid regulations of the home country.” Or, to be more succinct: “Congress to Norwegian: Drop Dead.”
Bad idea #2: The House also decided to try to resurrect an earlier proposal allowing airlines to omit taxes and fees from their advertised airfares—a proposal that would deny travelers the ability to compare total trip prices quickly and accurately. As an example, British Airways currently constructs its $765 round-trip fare from New York to London in mid-August as a base fare of $304, plus $461 in taxes, fees, and carrier charges. Under the House proposal, BA could advertise London fares as $304 round-trip* (*plus taxes and fees), because carrier charges are also fees. Feh! This was a terrible idea when it first surfaced in 2014, and it’s a terrible idea now.