It’s time for Congress to stand up for air travelers

By | February 21st, 2016

Now that the dust has settled after Round 1 of the fight for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill, air travelers are wondering: What’s in it for us?

Not much, unfortunately. The current legislation to fund the FAA, widely believed to be the best chance in years to improve air travel, was recently approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. It now goes to the Senate, which is unlikely to pass the bill in its current form because it privatizes air traffic control.

The FAA bill includes some provisions that would benefit consumers, such as a rule that requires airlines to refund fees for delayed baggage and an extension of the Transportation Department’s respected Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection. But two contentious consumer issues will be on representatives’ plates as they consider how to fund the FAA in coming weeks. And the bigger question of what Congress should be doing for air travelers looms large in this election year. Almost no one thinks their representatives are doing enough.

One of the passenger issues is seat size. An amendment called the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act, which was proposed by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), failed in committee. The act would have established minimums for seat size and pitch (the distance between rows) in the interests of protecting passenger safety and health.

Cohen argued that seat sizes should be regulated because the average distance between rows of seats has dropped from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today. The average width of an airline seat has also shrunk, from 18 inches to about 16½, he says.

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The airline industry vehemently opposed the amendment. “We believe that the government should not regulate, but instead market forces, which reflect consumer decisions, and competition should determine what is offered,” says Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group for airlines.

Equally vehement were consumer advocates, who favored a minimum seat size rule. “Current seats are not just uncomfortable but pose safety and health risks,” says Paul Hudson, president of, a group that represents air travelers. He’s pushing the FAA to set a moratorium on further shrinkage until standards are set.

Cohen plans to introduce the amendment again when the bill comes to the floor of the House. Observers also say it’s likely that the companion bill in the Senate will contain language requiring the Transportation Department to set minimum seat room standards, which would have to be reconciled with the House bill in committee.

The second issue: fare disclosure. An airline-supported amendment, introduced late during the bill’s markup session by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), would allow an airline to prominently quote a fare without taxes and other mandatory fees.

The amendment, called the Transparent Airfares Act, would reverse the Transportation Department’s popular full-fare advertising rule, which requires airlines to quote the entire fare but permits them to break down the taxes and fees less prominently.

Allowing airlines to advertise their fares minus taxes and fees could leave air travelers with an initial impression that ticket prices are more than 20 percent lower than they really are. By some informal estimates, doing so would translate into an additional $1 billion in annual revenue to the domestic airline industry.

Airlines lobbied the House to pass the same measure two years ago, but the legislation failed to gain traction in the Senate. The amendment’s fate is likely to be identical this time. Already, one key senator, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), has vowed to block the measure, denouncing it as allowing a “powerful special interest” to cheat customers.

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“The only reason that airlines want this rule is so that they can mislead and deceive passengers into thinking the price of flying is lower,” says Charles Leocha, president of Travelers United, a consumer group that represents air travelers. (Disclosure: I co-founded Travelers United, but I am no longer actively involved in the group.)

Of course, the seat space and fare questions are tied to the FAA bill, whose destiny is less certain. The legislation spends the bulk of its 273 pages attempting to privatize air traffic control, an issue that could be a non-starter even for the current legislature. Observers expect Congress to delay the bill by weeks or months, which means efforts to roll back disclosure laws on airfares and to set minimum airline seat standards could be held hostage to this Washington drama.

All of the air travel politicking raises bigger questions for travelers, who have long suspected that Congress is in the airline industry’s pocket. For consumers, it’s difficult to understand that their representatives could spend so much time arguing over privatizing air traffic control while marginalizing the needs of their own constituents. They wonder if Congress will ever try to protect air travelers or just continue passing laws that favor airlines.

The answer is a little complicated. Congress acts — or threatens to act — when public sentiment overwhelmingly favors consumer protections. For example, after well-publicized tarmac delays 17 years ago, congressional action to clamp down on airlines seemed all but certain. To avert more regulations, domestic airlines voluntarily agreed to adopt customer-service plans. A decade ago, after another series of highly publicized aircraft delays on the taxiway, airlines couldn’t avoid regulation, leading to the current tarmac-delay rules.

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But when the eyes of the traveling public are turned away, lawmakers always seem to be on the lookout for ways to help airlines become more profitable, sometimes at the expense of passengers. Too often, Congress votes to loosen regulations, undo consumer protection laws, and, indeed, to make the flying experience even worse than it is. Most upsetting to passengers is the fact that representatives enjoy special perks when they fly and are said to rarely see the economy class cabin of the aircraft, so they don’t always feel the results of their customer-unfriendly legislation.

On this particular bill, and on the two consumer issues attached to it, voters have a little more leverage than usual. After all, it’s an election year. They can contact their representative (bonus points if they’re on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but it’s not necessary). Sadly for passengers, the SEAT Act failed on a largely party-line vote, and the Transparent Airfares Act passed unanimously.

Letting your representatives know how you feel about these measures could change the outcome of this debate. The SEAT Act failed by only seven votes, and to advocates, that means that there’s still hope that civility and honesty could someday return to the skies.

Is Congress doing enough for air travelers?

View Results

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  • AJPeabody

    Congress isn’t doing enough for any individuals (corporate “people” excepted), so why should this be any different?

  • Alan Gore

    “We believe that the government should not regulate, but instead market forces, which reflect consumer decisions, and competition should determine what is offered,”

    If they really believed that, they would allow foreign competition in. I would like to see an omnibus travelers’ rights bill that would fix a number of oft-cited problems at once. It could include minimum airline seat size and pitch, fee promotion for optional items only, honesty in calculating rebates for such things as premium services that could not be rendered, transferability of non-refundable tickets, a clearly defined “walk’ policy for hotel oversells, and an end to the rental car fake damage scam.

  • MarkKelling

    Congress does nothing for individuals unless you donate enough money to their election funds.

  • LostInMidwest

    That Congress can’t act in the favor of the citizens unless there is overwhelming support of the citizens is pretty sad if you stop and think about it. I do not want to go into off-topic discussion so I will say it once and not argue about it in replies. Thing is, since the dawn of human society, interests of business and its customers were always diametrically opposed. Period. Congress doesn’t need overwhelming support of aggravated citizens to act, it should act by default in favor of the citizens.

    While we are at it, a resounding NO! to airlines quoting fare without taxes. And while we are at it, stop the practice for ALL businesses. There is ZERO reasons to post Mocha price before taxes at Starbucks. There is ZERO reason to post Kleenex price before taxes in your supermarket. There is ZERO reason to post price before taxes of the car on dealership’s lot. And so on. Every receipt should have total paid (and quoted), then price before tax, % of tax paid and total value of tax paid in dollars. At least that’s how they do it in civilized countries where citizen’s well-being comes first and foremost. I still, after 15 years in U.S., find the practice disturbing. Seriously, I don’t give a flying donut about how much it will cost me before “Gubmint” gets its greedy hands on my money, I need to know how much I will pay before I reach cash register. It would only be fair to the consumer and, in the end, a civilized thing to do.

  • MarkKelling

    Well, there is one reason that the cars on the dealership lot cannot be posted with tax included in the state where I live: you pay tax on a vehicle based on where you live, not where the dealership is located. Since tax rates vary from county to county, pre calculating the total price to place on advertisements is impossible.

    Other than that, I agree with your points.

  • LostInMidwest

    OK, understood. However, they could still display the price local taxes included, then take them off if the customer is out of state. That’s what they do at the airports when you want VAT return before flying back to U.S. and, in my book, it is perfectly fine. But point taken. Let’s just say that there is possibly 85% of all goods that normal citizens buy during their lifetime where tax “issues” do not exist and it is straightforward calculation. I would settle for 85% rather than close to 0% as it is now.

  • technomage1

    I don’t believe congress will act until people die uneccessarily from overly cramped seating. It took the Tianic sinking to mandate passenger ships to carry lifeboats by passenger counts and not tonnage.

  • Dave N

    Until congress decides to re regulate the airlines there is little if anything they can do about anything other than possibly safety of flight and I don’t think they have the guts to do even that. Travelers have got to get over this wanting to find the cheapest seat no matter how uncomfortable and vote with there wallets. It’s the only thing that the airlines are going to understand.

  • John McDonald

    think some of Cohen figures are very dodgy (just like most U.S. politicians – best money can buy).
    A very high percentage of U.S. domestic fleet are narrow bodies, ie. Boeing 737’s, MD80’s or Airbus 319/320/321’s. Don’t know the percentage, but it must be in the low to mid 90% range.
    In coach, seat width has not changed at all. It’s all 3-3 seating. What is he suggesting, the aisles are wider ?
    Plus, seat pitch is not a direct representation of leg room.
    2 aircraft with same seat plan, with same seat pitch, can have VERY different legroom, because of the HUGE difference is seat back thickness.
    I think Cohen is interested in 1 thing only & that’s self promotion.

  • John McDonald

    Qantas is not the best airline in the world by any measure, but Qantas is allowed to fly LAX/JFK/LAX everyday using widebodied aircraft.
    They can carry Australians on tickets from Australia & Americans etc. with tickets from JFK to Australia, but not people wanting to fly LAX/JFK or JFK/LAX only. They can carry a lot of freight.
    99% of foreign airlines are superior to U.S. carriers in most respects.
    Not allowing foreign carriers to fly domestically in USA is akin to not allowing foreign cars into USA. What’s the difference ?

  • John McDonald

    it’s called a bribe. Show us a U.S. politician who says they don’t take money for favours & we’ll show you a liar. The whole political system in USA is a joke, when the president is a lame duck like now & can’t even bring in gun control of any sort.
    Dictator here you come maybe ?

  • KanExplore

    I’m always in the minority when I say these things, but I think the “consumer advocates” are working on behalf of some consumers – the ones who say they want bigger seat sizes, but have been proven again and again unwilling to pay for them – and against those consumers who prefer (or require in order to be able to fly) the option to pay lower fares. Mandating seat pitch of 35 inches will require just about every jet to pull out several rows of seats, which means fewer passengers per flight. This means with absolute certainty higher ticket prices, and more carbon emissions per passenger mile flown.

    I do agree the “Transparent Airfares Act” is a misnomer – airlines can already break down prices as they wish, but must quote the correct total, which is as it should be.

  • KanExplore

    I’m all for allowing foreign airlines to compete within the U.S. I don’t see how any one bill could or should cover all the things you mention, though.

  • TMMao

    How would they separate the passengers that need to go through immigration & customs from those that are flying domestic?

  • John McDonald

    not difficult at all. Done in Australia all the time.
    + at present QF11 LAX/JFK a daily 747-400, arrives in from Sydney OZ. All passengers clear customs & immigration at LAX & then it simply becomes a domestic flight.

  • John McDonald

    so they display the price is you live in same county as dealership(with a * saying if you live in different county, price may vary). Not a big deal.

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