Fine print in FAA bill sets advocates against lobbyists, but passengers could lose

Air travelers are about to get their best shot in four years at fixing everything that’s wrong with flying — or they would if they’d been invited to the party.

Sometime next week, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is expected to consider the FAA reauthorization bill, which funds the Federal Aviation Administration, among other things. At a markup session, where changes to the law are considered, various special interests will push to include their amendments.

The bill, introduced Wednesday, spends the bulk of its 273 pages dealing with air traffic control reform issues. It also proposes rules regarding kids and seat assignments, prohibitions on voice communications, and refunds on checked baggage that’s delayed.

For example, the Travel Technology Association (Travel Tech) — a trade group for online travel agencies, reservations systems and short-term rental companies — is lobbying for a congressional commission to study the state of air competition. It contends that the recent airline mergers, which have left us with only four large domestic carriers, are bad for the marketplace.

They’re also fighting airline industry efforts to include provisions such as the Transparent Airfares Act, a law that would allow airlines to quote a base fare minus taxes and fees, which would leave passengers with the impression that their tickets are cheaper than they are. This initial deception — quoting an unbookable low fare — could prove costly to consumers and online agencies, they say.

“It would be a bad sign if language that decreases the ability for consumers to comparison shop, such as the Transparent Airfares Act, made it into the package instead of initiatives that promote airline competition and consumer choice,” says Philip Minardi, a spokesman for Travel Tech.

Meanwhile, airlines are preoccupied with the prospect of modernizing air traffic control, which is also on the agenda. Airlines for America (A4A), which represents the major domestic airlines, says it favors air traffic control reform, but not privatization.

A4A’s biggest priority is persuading Congress to take action to preserve the FAA’s safety oversight of air traffic control “while moving the operation and funding of air traffic control to a federally chartered, nonprofit organization that would be governed and funded by the stakeholders and users of our nation’s aviation system,” says Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for A4A.

There’s some coordination between passenger advocates and their legislators. A group of congressional representatives, led by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), plans to slip the Families Flying Together Act of 2015 into the bill. The language would direct the Department of Transportation to establish a policy that a family that purchases tickets for a flight be seated together during that flight.

The Family Travel Association, a trade group, is throwing its weight behind the amendment, saying it would make traveling with children easier. “As an industry, we don’t want to discourage parents from flying with their kids,” says Rainer Jenss, the association’s president. “And if a family can’t even sit together on a flight, they may decide not to travel at all.”

The bill is important because it represents the best opportunity to upgrade the flying experience since the passage of the last FAA funding bill in 2012. Travelers aren’t shy about sharing their wishes.

“More legroom,” says Joan De Palma, a retired social worker who lives in New York. “Also, more lenient cancellation or change-of-date policies. It shouldn’t cost $200 per ticket.”

That sounds simple, but it isn’t. A hard rule mandating minimum seat standards is unlikely to fly through the Republican-controlled committee. But a group of consumer advocates, including FlyersRights.org and Travelers United, is openly supporting minimum seat-room standards on aircraft. It will be asking Congress to study the issue, including the safety implications of shrinking the seat sizes.

FlyersRights.org and the National Consumers League have also been lobbying for caps on airline change fees. But so far, they’ve found no legislative traction.

“Drop the silly baggage fees,” says Sandy Hoboy, a teacher from Phoenix.

Again, that’s a complicated thing. Passengers such as Hoboy are not just upset that airlines are charging for luggage but that they also have unbundled the baggage fees from their fares. That allows them to quote a lower total price than travelers would actually pay once baggage fees are added to the total. These extra fees are often poorly disclosed when you book online — some customers even allege that they are intentionally hidden — so a passenger may not know how much more it will cost to bring a bag.

Consumer advocates and online agents are pushing for regulations that would require airlines to more prominently disclose fees that typically are booked along with a ticket, such as a baggage fee and a seat assignment. There has even been some debate about the Department of Transportation formalizing a definition of a ticket to include these common items, but the current committee is unlikely to get involved.

How about regulating loyalty programs? That’s what frequent air travelers such as Ricky McIntosh, who runs an educational website in Longwood, Fla., want. “In the past, 20,000 miles would get you a one-way ticket anywhere in the United States, except for Alaska and Hawaii,” he says. “Now, it’s 40,000 miles.”

So far, efforts to regulate loyalty programs at the federal level have failed, and for now, this issue appears not to be on any advocacy group’s agenda. Which is too bad. Air travelers are being deceived by these programs every day, with apparent permission from the government. Airlines can, and almost certainly will, continue to devalue their programs as long as they are allowed to, observers say.

When all else fails, you can always ask for a blanket fix — or, as Betty Wilkinson, a consultant from Atlanta, puts it, “minimum service standards.” Part of her wish has already come true. All of the major airlines have restored snacks to their flights, even in economy class. But there’s no magic wand that can be waved to fix one of the most complained-about industries in America.

Rather, a series of smaller amendments and rule changes that include mandating clearer fee disclosure, scrutinizing code-share agreements and future mergers, and ensuring minimum safety and comfort standards for passengers will probably add up to a better passenger experience.

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