It’s time for Congress to stand up for air travelers

Now that the dust has settled after Round 1 of the fight for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill, air travelers are wondering: What’s in it for us?

Not much, unfortunately. The current legislation to fund the FAA, widely believed to be the best chance in years to improve air travel, was recently approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. It now goes to the Senate, which is unlikely to pass the bill in its current form because it privatizes air traffic control.

The FAA bill includes some provisions that would benefit consumers, such as a rule that requires airlines to refund fees for delayed baggage and an extension of the Transportation Department’s respected Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection. But two contentious consumer issues will be on representatives’ plates as they consider how to fund the FAA in coming weeks. And the bigger question of what Congress should be doing for air travelers looms large in this election year. Almost no one thinks their representatives are doing enough.

One of the passenger issues is seat size. An amendment called the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act, which was proposed by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), failed in committee. The act would have established minimums for seat size and pitch (the distance between rows) in the interests of protecting passenger safety and health.

Cohen argued that seat sizes should be regulated because the average distance between rows of 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 shrunk, from 18 inches to about 16½, he says.

The airline industry vehemently opposed the amendment. “We believe that the government should not regulate, but instead market forces, which reflect consumer decisions, and competition should determine what is offered,” says Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group for airlines.

Equally vehement were consumer advocates, who favored a minimum seat size rule. “Current seats are not just uncomfortable but pose safety and health risks,” says Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, a group that represents air travelers. He’s pushing the FAA to set a moratorium on further shrinkage until standards are set.

Cohen plans to introduce the amendment again when the bill comes to the floor of the House. Observers also say it’s likely that the companion bill in the Senate will contain language requiring the Transportation Department to set minimum seat room standards, which would have to be reconciled with the House bill in committee.

The second issue: fare disclosure. An airline-supported amendment, introduced late during the bill’s markup session by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), would allow an airline to prominently quote a fare without taxes and other mandatory fees.

The amendment, called the Transparent Airfares Act, would reverse the Transportation Department’s popular full-fare advertising rule, which requires airlines to quote the entire fare but permits them to break down the taxes and fees less prominently.

Allowing airlines to advertise their fares minus taxes and fees could leave air travelers with an initial impression that ticket prices are more than 20 percent lower than they really are. By some informal estimates, doing so would translate into an additional $1 billion in annual revenue to the domestic airline industry.

Airlines lobbied the House to pass the same measure two years ago, but the legislation failed to gain traction in the Senate. The amendment’s fate is likely to be identical this time. Already, one key senator, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), has vowed to block the measure, denouncing it as allowing a “powerful special interest” to cheat customers.

“The only reason that airlines want this rule is so that they can mislead and deceive passengers into thinking the price of flying is lower,” says Charles Leocha, president of Travelers United, a consumer group that represents air travelers. (Disclosure: I co-founded Travelers United, but I am no longer actively involved in the group.)

Of course, the seat space and fare questions are tied to the FAA bill, whose destiny is less certain. The legislation spends the bulk of its 273 pages attempting to privatize air traffic control, an issue that could be a non-starter even for the current legislature. Observers expect Congress to delay the bill by weeks or months, which means efforts to roll back disclosure laws on airfares and to set minimum airline seat standards could be held hostage to this Washington drama.

All of the air travel politicking raises bigger questions for travelers, who have long suspected that Congress is in the airline industry’s pocket. For consumers, it’s difficult to understand that their representatives could spend so much time arguing over privatizing air traffic control while marginalizing the needs of their own constituents. They wonder if Congress will ever try to protect air travelers or just continue passing laws that favor airlines.

The answer is a little complicated. Congress acts — or threatens to act — when public sentiment overwhelmingly favors consumer protections. For example, after well-publicized tarmac delays 17 years ago, congressional action to clamp down on airlines seemed all but certain. To avert more regulations, domestic airlines voluntarily agreed to adopt customer-service plans. A decade ago, after another series of highly publicized aircraft delays on the taxiway, airlines couldn’t avoid regulation, leading to the current tarmac-delay rules.

But when the eyes of the traveling public are turned away, lawmakers always seem to be on the lookout for ways to help airlines become more profitable, sometimes at the expense of passengers. Too often, Congress votes to loosen regulations, undo consumer protection laws, and, indeed, to make the flying experience even worse than it is. Most upsetting to passengers is the fact that representatives enjoy special perks when they fly and are said to rarely see the economy class cabin of the aircraft, so they don’t always feel the results of their customer-unfriendly legislation.

On this particular bill, and on the two consumer issues attached to it, voters have a little more leverage than usual. After all, it’s an election year. They can contact their representative (bonus points if they’re on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but it’s not necessary). Sadly for passengers, the SEAT Act failed on a largely party-line vote, and the Transparent Airfares Act passed unanimously.

Letting your representatives know how you feel about these measures could change the outcome of this debate. The SEAT Act failed by only seven votes, and to advocates, that means that there’s still hope that civility and honesty could someday return to the skies.

Is Congress doing enough for air travelers?

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