Air­lines, con­sumer groups ready for fight over pro­posed bill

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By David Koenig

Just as sum­mer va­ca­tion­ers start to pack up and head home, Congress is con­sid­er­ing a sweep­ing tally of pro­pos­als that could af­fect trav­el­ers, from dictating seat size and legroom, the over­book­ing of flights, dis­rup­tive pas­sen­gers, ex­tra fees and rolling back rules that re­quire air­lines to ad­ver­tise the full price of a ticket.

As sum­mer va­ca­tion­ers start to pack up and head home, Congress is con­sid­er­ing a sweep­ing tally of pro­pos­als that could af­fect trav­el­ers, from dictating seat size and legroom to rolling back rules that re­quire air­lines to ad­ver­tise the full price of a ticket.

The cur­rent law au­tho­riz­ing op­er­a­tions of the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­pires on Sept. 30. Sen. John Thune, R-south Dakota, chair­man of the Se­nate Com­merce Com­mit­tee, is work­ing to bring his panel’s bill for a five-year reau­tho­riza­tion to the Se­nate floor af­ter a se­ries of de­lays.

The House passed its ver­sion of the same bill in April.

Con­sumer ad­vo­cates see vic­to­ries and set­backs among the pro­vi­sions in the two bills.

Air­line seats

The House bill would give the FAA a year to set min­i­mums for seat width and length and the dis­tance be­tween rows, al­though it didn’t set spe­cific mea­sure­ments. The ver­sion ap­proved by a Se­nate com­mit­tee would only di­rect FAA to study whether there should be min­i­mum re­quire­ments for the dis­tance be­tween rows.

The room be­tween rows — mea­sured from a point on one seat to the same point on the seat in the next row — has been shrink­ing for many years as air­lines squeeze more seats onto their planes. It was once com­monly 34 or 35 inches, and is now un­der 30 inches on some planes.

Some safety ad­vo­cates say the tighter fit makes it harder for pas­sen­gers to evac­u­ate in an emer­gency. The FAA has de­clined a con­sumer group’s re­quest to im­pose reg­u­la­tions, putting the is­sue in Congress’ hands.

Ad­ver­tised prices

Con­sumer groups scored a hard-fought vic­tory in 2012, when the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion re­quired air­lines to in­clude govern­ment taxes and fees in the ad­ver­tised price of a ticket. Air­lines op­posed the rule then, and they lob­bied the House to in­clude a pro­vi­sion in its FAA bill that would roll back the re­quire­ment.

“Con­sumers need to know the full cost of travel,” said Charles Leocha, pres­i­dent of Trav­el­ers United. “Tak­ing a step back to al­low­ing the air­lines to ad­ver­tise air­fares with­out manda­tory taxes and fees will be a ma­jor step to­ward al­low­ing de­cep­tive and mis­lead­ing air­fares.”

The Se­nate bill would pro­hibit air­lines from charg­ing “un­rea­son­able” ticket-change or can­cel­la­tion fees. The Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment also would set stan­dards for other fees to make sure they re­flect the air­line’s ac­tual cost for pro­vid­ing ex­tra ser­vice. Air­lines raised more than $7.4 bil­lion last year from fees on checked bag­gage and can­cel­la­tions.

The re­stric­tion was pro­posed by a pair of Se­nate Democrats over strong ob­jec­tions by the air­line lobby. Sharon Pinker­ton, a se­nior vice pres­i­dent at the trade group Air­lines for Amer­ica, called it a first step to­ward re­turn­ing to the pre-1978 era when the fed­eral govern­ment set air­line prices.

Over­booked flights

The House would ban air­lines from bump­ing pas­sen­gers from over­booked flights once they have boarded the plane. The pro­vi­sion was in­spired by the 2017 in­ci­dent in which a pas­sen­ger was dragged off a United Ex­press plane to make room for a late-ar­riv­ing air­line em­ployee.

In re­sponse to the crit­i­cism, air­lines have cut over­book­ing to their low­est level in at least two decades.

On­line travel agen­cies

Both the House bill and the Sen- ate’s com­mit­tee-ap­proved ver­sion would re­quire on­line travel agen­cies such as Ex­pe­dia and Or­b­itz to tell con­sumers about things such as ex­tra fees and changes in air­line sched­ules. Vaughn Jen­nings, a spokesman for the air­line trade group Air­lines for Amer­ica, said the on­line agen­cies “shouldn’t be ex­empt from con­sumer-pro­tec­tion stan­dards that cus­tomers ex­pe­ri­ence on air­line web­sites.”

Steve Shur, pres­i­dent of a trade group that in­cludes the on­line ticket sell­ers, said air­lines don’t al­ways give his com­pa­nies that kind of in­for­ma­tion. He called the pro­pos­als a veiled ef­fort to drive them out of the air-travel busi­ness and re­duce com­pe­ti­tion for the air­lines.

Dis­rup­tive pas­sen­gers

The House bill would let air­line em­ploy­ees block pas­sen­gers from go­ing through se­cu­rity screen­ing or get­ting on a plane if the em­ployee ac­cuses them of ver­bal or phys­i­cal as­sault. Pas­sen­gers would be held up un­til po­lice could sort things out. A union that rep­re­sents air­line em­ploy­ees lob­bied for the pro­vi­sion.

There are many other pro­vi­sions in the bills, in­clud­ing some that are op­posed by safety ex­perts. Pi­lot unions are fight­ing against a trial to test the idea of let­ting cargo air­lines use one pi­lot in­stead of two. The unions say that in an emer­gency, one pi­lot could be more eas­ily over­whelmed.

An even more con­tro­ver­sial idea would re­duce the num­ber of hours that some­one must fly to be­come an air­line co-pi­lot. It’s in the bill ap­proved by Thune’s com­mit­tee but not in the House ver­sion.

Congress raised the min­i­mum re­quired fly­ing ex­pe­ri­ence from 250 hours to 1,500 hours af­ter 50 peo­ple died in a 2009 ac­ci­dent near Buf­falo, N.Y. The Re­gional Air­line As­so­ci­a­tion, whose mem­bers op­er­ate smaller planes fly­ing un­der the ban­ners of Amer­i­can Ea­gle, Delta Con­nec­tion and United Ex­press, say the re­quire­ment has cre­ated a pi­lot short­age.

The RAA sup­ports Thune’s pro­posal to let pi­lots count time on cer­tain types of train­ing in a class­room or a flight sim­u­la­tor to­ward the 1,500 hours.

Fam­i­lies of those who died in the 2009 Col­gan Air crash have fought against the RAA. They note that af­ter Col­gan, there were no fa­tal ac­ci­dents in­volv­ing U.S. air­lin­ers un­til a woman was killed on a South­west flight in April.

“The RAA and oth­ers will con­tinue to try any ma­neu­ver to wa­ter this down. It’s sad,” said Scott Mau­rer, whose daugh­ter, Lorin, was on the Col­gan plane. “In their eyes, it’s not about safety, it’s about their busi­ness prof­its.”

If the Se­nate acts on the FAA bill, any dif­fer­ences from the House ver­sion would need to be set­tled be­fore a fi­nal mea­sure goes to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. If Congress can’t agree, law­mak­ers could pass a scaled-back, short-term ex­ten­sion to keep FAA func­tion­ing.

John Locher, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Pas­sen­gers wait for bag­gage at Mccar­ran In­ter­na­tional Air­port in Las Ve­gas in June.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.