FAA bill offers a mixed bag for air travelers

It looks as if the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill can fly, after all.

It took five years of debate and more than two dozen short-term extensions, but the legislation finally passed this week.

When I started writing this column in 2009, almost every trade group in Washington told me that the FAA bill was the single most important piece of legislation for the travel industry. Setting aside for a moment the teensy fact that our preferred method of transportation is the car, the bill’s long-delayed approval raises two key questions. First, how did travelers fare amid all the legislative horse-trading? And second, are passengers adequately represented in Washington today?

The answer to the first question is: Travelers did so-so.

Ask Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), who heads the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and he’ll tell you about the overall benefits to the aviation sector. And it would be unfair to dismiss those; they include a shiny next-generation air traffic control system and keeping the FAA humming along for the next four years. No doubt there will be some trickle-down benefits to passengers from what Mica called a “long-term blueprint for aviation programs.”

When you talk to congressional staff insiders about what’s in the bill for rank-and-file air travelers, you get a different response. Staffers with whom I spoke pointed to two specific provisions that they said would directly benefit consumers.

The first is a requirement to turn the Department of Transportation’s current tarmac-delay planning rules into law. Airlines and airports must have a plan to provide food, water, restroom facilities, comfortable cabin temperatures and access to medical treatment on delayed aircraft. Also, airlines must allow passengers to deplane within a time frame determined by the transportation secretary. And the bill establishes a consumer protection committee to advise the DOT on carrying out service improvements to benefit air passengers.

Some observers, though, are skeptical.

“Some seemingly pro-consumer provisions of the bill have been so watered down by industry lobbying that they are likely to be of little value,” says Edward Hasbrouck, an industry watcher and author of “The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World.”

Hasbrouck says he’s particularly wary of the new advisory committee, which calls for only one consumer representative but allows for two industry representatives and one government representative. “An enormous amount will depend on who is appointed to represent consumers on this committee,” he says.

Who represents consumers now? It’s hard to say.

Travelers don’t speak in Washington with a single voice, and at no time was that clearer than during the drawn-out debate over the FAA bill. Consumer groups, all with their own agendas, bickered over proposed language that would have required airlines to disclose a full fare and squabbled about the merits of stricter tarmac-delay laws.

None of those items made it into the final bill. A better-organized and better-funded airline industry exploited those internal divisions, and in the end, that hurt consumers.

“Airlines have the upper hand in Washington, especially in Congress,” says Kevin Mitchell, whose Business Travel Coalition represents corporate travelers in Washington. The airlines — individually and collectively through their trade association, Airlines for America— have “more financial resources and lobbyists in the halls of Congress than do consumer advocacy groups collectively.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t disclose that I have a horse in this race. Four years ago, I helped start an organization called the Consumer Travel Alliance, and although I have stepped back and today serve as its volunteer ombudsman, it has given me a front-row view of the role travel advocates play — and don’t play — in Washington.

Charles Leocha, who heads the travel alliance, says that the system is slowly changing but that to get a sense of the impact consumer groups are having in Washington, you need to take a step back. Many of the most significant changes are happening at the regulatory level, where consumers were hardly represented even a few years ago. Now, it’s rare to see the DOT making a ruling without comments from several consumer groups.

The most effective advocacy comes from building relationships on the ground, “working together with congressional delegations, agencies and all of the major associations to keep the consumer voice included in new rulemakings and laws,” Leocha says.

Yes, the FAA bill was important, he says. But you shouldn’t judge the effectiveness of consumer groups based on a single bill. You should evaluate them on the lower-profile, but equally important, rulings and advisories that shape so much of the air travel experience.

Maybe the fact that air travelers don’t speak with one voice is more of a strength than a weakness. Like air travelers, the groups representing them are diverse. They couldn’t find a common cause in the FAA bill, but perhaps they will next time.

So to answer my second question about whether passengers are adequately represented in Washington: no way.

“Consumer lobbyists were hopelessly outnumbered and outspent by the airline industry,” says Hasbrouck, pointing to the final outcome of the FAA bill, which favored the airlines.

But that’s slowly changing. And that’s good news not only for air travelers but for all travelers.

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