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

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, 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.

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.

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.

How early should you really arrive for your flight? Let’s settle this question once and for all

Want to start an argument? Tell your travel companion you won’t be arriving two hours before your flight. Read more “How early should you really arrive for your flight? Let’s settle this question once and for all”

A flight attendant took my camera and I want it back

The camera never lies. / Photo by Hunter – Flickr Creative Commons
Question: I need your help with a missing camera. I flew from Boston to Minneapolis on US Airways. When I boarded the flight in Boston, the overhead bins were full. A flight attendant told me I would have to gate-check my carry-on bag.
Read more “A flight attendant took my camera and I want it back”

Are airlines lying about boarding pass fees?

When Marius Vogelfanger got an email from Ryanair before a recent flight from Bergamo Airport, near Milan, Italy, he thought it was sending it to him as a courtesy.
Read more “Are airlines lying about boarding pass fees?”

US Airways fires skycaps, replaces them with Wall-E

Rewriting our playbook. That’s what US Airways calls the firing of its skycaps and the elimination of curbside check-in in 23 cities.

Well, they can call it whatever they want. The airline’s actions, which appears to be a direct response to a lawsuit brought by the now-terminated subcontractors, promises to change the check-in process significantly.

Some of the skycaps will be replaced by US Airways employees (they’re currently PrimeFlight Aviation Services employees) or by a machine.

That’s right, a kiosk. Can you help me with my bag, Wall-E?

As always, I have the inside track on the story. Here’s an internal memo from US Airways. Mind the spin.

Beginning July 9, the date that we begin charging $15 for first-checked-bags, we’ll no longer offer curbside check-in services with Skycap partners in our airports, with the exception of our hubs and focus cities and some of our larger locations, where we will gradually transition to having US Airways customer service agents take care of our customers curbside.

Long term, our vision for the curb is to provide our customers with convenient automated resources. This means having kiosks at many, but not all, curbside locales outside our ticket counters.

Look for more on this in the months ahead. ACS Managing Director, SE Region Jim Vallillo, who is heading up the curb transition project said,“We’ll be communicating details to the field stations in the days and weeks ahead as these changes do affect the way we do business at the curb. We’re planning for a smooth transition and we expect to be well positioned to accommodate customers when our first bag policy takes affect.”

Curbside Closures

Changes at the Curb: Preparing for first-checked-bag

Q. Does the change in Skycaps have to do with the pending litigation about Skycap tips?

A. No. Our new first checked bag policy prompted us to rethink what we do at the curb and how to best continue our long-standing practice of curbside check-in. Also, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) contract contains specific language about CWA members being the only group who can collect funds in the price range of our first bag fee. In other words, this move allows us to follow our CWA agreement and sets us up to successfully carry out our first bag policy at the curb.

List of cities:

Chicago – O’Hare
Dallas/Ft. Worth
Fort Lauderdale
Fort Myers, Fla.
Hartford, Conn.
Jacksonville, Fla.
Las Vegas
Los Angeles
New Orleans
Orange County, Calif.
Providence, R.I.
Sacramento, Calif.
San Diego
San Francisco
San Jose, Calif.
Tampa, Fla.
West Palm Beach

No, I don’t for a minute believe that this had nothing to do with a lawsuit. But I do believe this is the sign of things to come.

The other airlines can’t be far behind in canning their skycaps.