Sur­prise, dis­ap­point­ment aloft ahead in FAA bill

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Trav­el­ers United. Email him at chris@el­liott.org. CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT

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 Fly­er­sRights.org, 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 propas­sen­ger forces will pre­vail.

No mat­ter what hap­pens, the hope that leg­is­la­tors will en­act strong air­line con­sumer laws has all but dis­ap­peared.

The Se­nate ver­sion of the bill, which is more con­sumer­friendly, would re­quire a study on air­line seat size, long a burr un­der the sad­dle of econ­o­my­class pas­sen­gers. Pas­sen­ger­ad­vo­cacy 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.

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