Congress comes to the aid of travelers, sort of

Congress last week proposed not one, but three ideas that could dramatically improve your next travel experience. I know that sounds like the opening line of a joke, but it’s true.

To get a sense of just how friendless travelers are in D.C., consider the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill, which funds the agency, among other things. It’s the best chance in four years to fix everything that’s wrong with flying, and maybe a few other travel problems, too. The current 273-page bill looks like it was written by airline lobbyists, save for one or two provisions that could help ordinary passengers.

For example, the powers that be tossed air travelers a table scrap with an interesting proposal that would help you when your luggage is misplaced by an airline. Specifically, it directs the Secretary of Transportation to create a rule that requires airlines to refund any baggage fees charged to passengers if luggage isn’t delivered within 24 hours, beginning at the time of the flight arrival. Currently, airlines only have to cough up these highly profitable fees if they lose your bag, and they only did that after the government forced them to.

But it’s a half-baked idea. While air travelers want their luggage to be delivered on time, they’re more concerned about getting to their destinations themselves — when their airline’s schedule promised it would get them there. To make this rule truly consumer-friendly, Congress should mandate that airlines refund airfares if they can’t deliver you to your destination within 24 hours of their schedule.

Second great idea: A proposed new law called the Stop Online Booking Scams Act, which would require all third-party hotel booking websites to disclose that they’re not affiliated with the hotel for which you’re making the reservation. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., says that the new requirement will help you tell the difference between legitimate hotel websites and fraudulent ones masquerading as name-brand sites.

But for guests, the more important disclosure is price. The hotel industry is awash in mandatory “resort” fees, lodging taxes and other surcharges, and hotel websites frequently don’t reveal these extra charges until the final booking screen. For consumers, the problem isn’t just knowing that they’re booking through a third party, but also knowing up front how much they’re going to pay for their room.

If the hotel industry, which supports the bill, really wants to help its customers, why not tweak it to require any hotel reservation site to disclose the full rate, including any mandatory fees, when you request a price quote?

Finally, we have the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act introduced by Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., which does something air travelers have wanted for a long time: It sets minimum dimensions for passenger seats on planes. Cohen says the average distance between rows of economy class 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 shriveled, from 18 inches to about 16½.

Smaller seats aren’t just a comfort issue, but also a potential safety problem, according to Cohen. The Federal Aviation Administration requires that planes be capable of rapid evacuation in case of emergencies, yet they haven’t conducted emergency evacuation tests on all of today’s seats. Doctors also warn that deep vein thrombosis can afflict passengers who can’t move their legs during longer flights, notes Cohen.

Critics and industry lobbyists say setting a minimum seat size would interfere with a free market and raise fares. But there’s no credible evidence prices would go up, and the SEAT Act would go a long way toward making air travel a little safer, if not more civil.

Unfortunately, the SEAT Act failed as an amendment to the FAA bill last week, but Cohen says he plans to ask Congress to vote on it again soon.

The crop of proposals contains at least one dud: A proposed amendment to the FAA bill that would allow airlines to quote an initial fare minus taxes and mandatory fees, deceptively called the Transparent Airfares Act. The act, which passed the House two years ago but failed to gain any traction in the Senate, is being pushed again by airline apologists. It would effectively dupe air travelers into believing their fares are cheaper than they are, potentially costing them billions of dollars.

But overall, these congressional actions are something to cheer about if you’re a traveler. Now, if we could only get them passed.

How to help pass these pro traveler laws

Contact your representative. Bonus points if they’re on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation, but it’s not necessary. Tell them you support the SEAT Act, a modified Stop Online Booking Scams Act, and that you favor the refund provision in the FAA bill. Every vote matters.

Keep the pressure on. As these laws work their way through the legislature, stay in contact with your representative about making a positive change for travelers. You can contact your elected representative here:

Vote for change. If these proposals don’t become law — and let’s not kid ourselves, they probably won’t all pass — then remember who did this to you come election time. Vote for someone who will do the right thing. Oh wait, it’s an election year. How convenient!

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