FAA funding bill may mean big changes for fliers – or none

An impending fight in Congress this spring over the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill could affect your next flight, for better or worse.

Trade associations call the appropriations bill the most important piece of legislation in the travel industry. The last one, passed in 2012, not only funded the FAA but also turned tarmac-delay rules into law and established an advisory committee for Aviation Consumer Protection.

But passengers, advocates and airline representatives can’t seem to agree on what the next FAA bill should — and shouldn’t — say.

Frequent flier Andy Abramson, a Del Mar, Calif., communications consultant who spends more than 200 days a year traveling, wishes Congress would take up basic passenger concerns, such as competition and customer service. He notes that since the previous bill was passed, American Airlines and US Airways have merged, reducing the number of legacy carriers to just three.

“We have far less competition,” he says. “Service levels in the air are declining.”

How could the government help? Abramson and other frequent travelers say it needs to find a way to encourage competition, either by reducing barriers to airline start-ups or by reviewing airline alliances, which offer airlines antitrust immunity. They could also set minimum comfort standards for passengers, which would prevent airlines from moving the seats closer together, as some have now done.

Passenger advocates are also pushing for changes. They have a long wish list that also includes addressing competition, limiting taxes and fees on travelers, and ensuring enforcement of regulations designed to protect consumers.

Before they can push their agenda, though, they’ll need to protect the gains made in 2012. They fear airlines may lobby to end the advisory committee on Aviation Consumer Protection, which has been a burr under the airline industry’s saddle for years because it routinely forces them to answer for their service lapses.

Also potentially on the chopping block are tarmac-delay rules, which prevent airlines from keeping passengers waiting in a parked plane for more than two hours without allowing them to disembark, according to Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel Coalition, a group that represents corporate travelers. Airlines contend these rules cost them money because they force them to preemptively cancel flights.

Advocates also hope Congress will take a closer look at the competitive landscape, which includes not only the reduced number of domestic airlines, but also the so-called code-sharing alliances — business arrangements that allow airlines to share a flight with one another, which can include marketing flights operated by another carrier as though they are their own. Critics contend that these agreements hamper competition and force customers to pay more for tickets.

“Today, there are only three big alliances, and they are acting like monopolies, to the detriment of passengers,” says Charlie Leocha, president of Travelers United, an airline advocacy group. (Full disclosure: I’m a founder of Travelers United but am no longer involved with the organization.)

Alliances also permit airlines to shirk their responsibilities when it comes to issues such as luggage. Because there’s a gray area over whose baggage rules apply on a code-sharing flight, airlines can shift blame on lost or damaged luggage until passengers give up in exasperation, advocates say.

The airline industry would prefer the government take a more hands-off approach, which means it’s likely to fight any efforts to clarify rules or limit its ability to establish code-share alliances. It’s also fighting to include a controversial provision that would allow it to initially quote an airfare without the attendant taxes and fees, a bill called the Transparent Airfares Act, which passed the House last summer but so far has failed to gain any traction in the Senate.

“If Congress is serious about protecting consumers and ensuring transparency, it should include the provisions of the Transparent Airfares Act in the FAA reauthorization bill to ensure our customers know how much of their advertised ticket price is attributable to federal taxes and fees,” says Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group for domestic airlines.

Critics say that kind of “transparency” would hurt potential fliers by giving them the impression that their airline tickets are cheaper than they are.

To be sure, airlines and passengers have some common ground. For example, the groups are unified when it comes to topics like lowering taxes on airline tickets. They’re also on the same page when it comes to modernizing air traffic infrastructure as part of a project called NextGen. But the issues that divide them seem fairly intractable and could lead to the delay of the bill, observers fear.

“These and many other issues involve advocates, opponents, lobbyists and Congress, usually leading to lengthy discussions and public debate before final resolution,” says Robert Mittelstaedt, a business professor and airline expert at Arizona State University. “While the 2015 process will likely involve some of the same drama as past authorizations, the average passenger will see little impact in the short term. However, as the saying goes, ‘Your mileage may vary’ — especially since the process could involve new fees and regulations before it is done.”

In the end, all the bickering is unlikely to address the big issues that passengers complain about. Steven Pinchefsky, a software consultant and frequent traveler based in Washington, sums them up as: “smaller seats, charging for everything and a lack of compassion.” Even airline employees, who try to ease some of the pain of air travel, are so hamstrung by restrictive policies created for the sole purpose of making more money, he says, “there’s nothing they can do to make your experience better.”

And that’s the problem with the FAA bill, which may be our best shot at improving air travel for years. You can’t legislate compassion. If you could, then this fight over the FAA bill would be over before it even started.

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