This bill makes it unlawful to remove passengers from planes. But that’s not enough.

By | July 3rd, 2017

Here we go again.

Congress is trying to pass yet another Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, a rare opportunity to help airline passengers by enacting meaningful consumer protections. It’s fast-moving legislation that may be all but decided by the time you read this. But the drafts of both the House and Senate bills offer a flight plan for air travelers during the next six years.

If you’re holding your breath for your elected representatives to stand up for airline passengers in the wake of the David Dao dragging incident, it’s time to exhale. Nothing of the sort will happen.

“There are some good provisions for passengers in the bill,” says Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, an advocacy group for air travelers. “But the language, as drafted, is toothless and unlikely to be effective.”

Let’s start with the Dao effect. Dao, you’ll recall, was hauled off a flight from Chicago to Louisville earlier this year, an incident captured on video and widely shared on social media. It sparked outrage among travelers that led to congressional hearings and promises by airline executives to “do better.”

Here’s how Congress defines “better”: Under the current bill drafts, it would be unlawful to remove a passenger from an aircraft as long as that person holds a confirmed reservation and is checked in on time.

Airlines would be banned from capping the maximum level of compensation to passengers who are bumped from a flight. Congress would also require airlines to “proactively” offer compensation to a passenger who is either voluntarily or involuntarily denied boarding from a flight, rather than waiting for the passenger to ask.

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Consumer advocates have applauded these incremental moves. “Safeguards against being bumped after boarding a plane are a good step,” says Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel Coalition, which advocates for corporate travelers and travel managers.

There are other noteworthy pro-consumer measures. For example, Congress wants to authorize an advisory committee on issues related to the air-travel needs of passengers with disabilities, which would recommend consumer protection improvements related to the air travel experience. It wants to fund a long-overdue study that would review of airport accessibility, too.

But the good is offset by the bad — and the bizarre — in the reauthorization bill.


For instance, Congress seems set on banning phone calls on planes, even though passengers aren’t exactly clamoring for such a law.

Both the House and Senate bill would forbid passengers from engaging in voice communications using a mobile device during a flight, but exempts members of the flight crew, flight attendants and federal law enforcement officials from the law.

Another proposed change would do the opposite of what it claims. Congress, supported by airlines, wants to pass a “full fare” advertising rule that would allow air carriers to disclose government-imposed fees and taxes associated with the air transportation separately from the base fare. That would give airlines a license to quote a price that appears dramatically lower than it is. The provision has been called “toxic” by consumer advocates and has repeatedly failed to pass in previous FAA reauthorization bills.

There’s hope that pro-passenger forces will prevail. The Senate version of the bill, which is more consumer-friendly, would require a study on airline seat size, long a burr under the saddle of economy-class passengers. Passenger-advocacy groups fear that smaller seats could make flying not only uncomfortable but unsafe. The Senate also wants airlines to refund fees for extra services such as seat reservations if a service isn’t provided. All of this remains unresolved for the moment.

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No matter what happens, the hope that legislators will enact strong airline consumer laws has all but disappeared. And consumer advocates say that if you’re flying this summer — or anytime in the next six years — you’ll have to be ready.

“Too many consumers don’t know their rights as airline passengers, and the big airlines take advantage of that,” says John Breyault, a vice president of the National Consumers League, an advocacy organization.

Breyault says most passengers aren’t aware that they can complain directly to the Transportation Department. While a single complaint may not lead to a regulatory change, the grievances as a group can have a significant effect on policy. Nor do most air travelers know that the few rights they do have are outlined in the DOT Fly Rights brochure, which is available on the agency’s website.

Overall, there’s a sense among passengers and passenger advocates that this FAA reauthorization process wasn’t as terrible as it could have been, considering the prevailing political winds. But it’s also a call to action for airline passengers: If you want your rights, you’ll have to fight for them yourself.



  • sirwired

    Frankly, I find it baffling that airlines are fighting basic things like: “if your luggage doesn’t arrive when, or before, you do, you automatically get a refund of any luggage fee if you checked in on time.” “If you pay a fee to reserve a seat and you don’t get that seat, you automatically get a refund of the seat fee.”

    This is what happens when a lobbying group reflexively fights any and all regulations, including those that regulate against pointless customer hostility.

  • Alan Gore

    Because they can’t believe that people are not doing more to fight back. It has become a game of everyone trying to outdo the other airline’s pointless customer hostility with even more pointless hostility.

    Budget carrier VivaColombia is planning to remove all the seats in its busy domestic flights, as in a Tokyo subway car, and just have passengers stand and squeeze together.
    https://tech.slashdot.org/story/17/07/03/1758232/colombian-airline-wants-to-make-passengers-stand

    Just wait ’til United hears about this.

  • C Schwartz

    Ryan Air said several years ago that they wanted to get rid of seats– and the founder of Ryanair is an investor in VIvaColombia. But the idea of removing the seats for the sort of standing stools has never gone anywhere because they are not approved by any civil aviation authority. In an article in Finance Colombia the director of Aerocivil, the civil aviation authority, said such seats would not be approved. VivaColombia is using the Ryanair playbook– for what purpose I do not know. Publicity?

  • sirwired

    The whole “no seats” thing is just a Crazy-Eddie style plublicity grab… You’d still need seats, they’d just be standing seats. There’s no plane with exit capacity to handle it, even if these seats existed, which they don’t. There would also be weight issues, fit problems, and the requirement for multi-point harnesses. And if you have to pull the overheads for height, and there’s no under-seat storage, now all the passenger possessions (with a lot more passengers) have to go in the cargo hold, which would crank up turnaround times, especially on narrow bodies that can’t containerize luggage.

    I think a couple outfits have produced concept sketches, but both Boeing and Airbus have said they have zero interest in adapting their planes to the idea.

    There’s no “planning” going on here, just a CEO running his mouth off to score some headlines.

  • michael anthony

    Every time the FAA reauthorization bill comes up, there are some great things in there. But due to the lobbyists, by the time it passes, almost all pro consumer issues are gone.

  • Barry

    Chris, thanks for writing this story. I liked what you said about the cellphone ban. You’d think that people were clamoring for one, but when you did deeper, you find out this provision is actually in there because the flight attendants union lobbied for it. Otherwise how comes other countries allow it, and why does it not apply to phones that are installed in the plane, it makes no sense? Furthermore it doesn’t need a law to prevent phone calls in the air. Practically every way of making a VOIP call has been blocked, and making a call using cellular service is illegal already. It’s just not possible to do it legally at the moment anyway! As for trying to roll back the change that forced airlines to show the whole price, what a joke. This bill isn’t about helping consumers, it’s about helping airlines and their staff. Before anyone tries to blame this on President Trump, the main instigator of the cellphone ban is a Democrat with the help of a Republican and both of them have been trying to do this for years.

  • Barry

    You are right, this is all about lobbying. That’s how the cellphone ban got in there and I have proof of that (you can find on the web a flight attendants newsletter that talks about lobbying for a ban).

  • Barry

    I agree there, I don’t think he was serious about no seats. It’s not my kind of airline because I like to choose my seats and to have the option to pay for better seats however Ryanair is a very successful and well-run airline and on the one occasion I did use them, it was actually a nice experience.

  • Annie M

    And this is why every consumer should write to their House and Senate representatives and tell them they want everything shown when they book a ticket.

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