A number of consumer protection measures will be up for discussion this fall as Congress nears the end of its recess and debates a long-term reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Passenger rights have been a legislative hot button ever since a string of incidents, topped by a 69-year-old man being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight when he refused to give up his seat during an overbooking situation.
He suffered multiple injuries in an incident that launched a national discussion about airline passenger service.
The current versions of both the Senate and the House FAA bills bar airlines from involuntarily removing customers from flights after they have boarded the plane.
The Senate bill also requires airlines to provide their boarding and bumping policies in some clear manner directly to passengers, and calls for a federal review of airline overbooking policies.
The House version would require air carriers to proactively offer customers compensation in the event of a bumping situation instead of waiting for passengers to request an offer, and would make it clear that there is no Federal limit on what a passenger can be offered.
"While there are pro-consumer provisions we support in both bills, including bans on in-flight voice calls and forced removals from planes, there are issues that need rectifying. These include multiple new disclosures travel agents would be forced to make in each and every air transaction, including over the phone and fact-to-face, and (in the House bill) the so-called Transparent Airfares Act to overturn DOT's full-price advertising rule," said Eben Peck, senior vice president, Government & Public Affairs at the American Society of Travel Agents
These disclosures open agents to unnecessary liability with consumers simply because they are in the middle of the consumer/airline transaction, ASTA believes.
In fact, in a June 28, 2017 letter Peck sent to Commerce Committee staffers, Peck noted how there were only 21 complaints filed against agents with the Department of Transportation in April, versus 1,877 filed against airlines.
ASTA is pressing to ensure that any new regulations against the airlines do not include travel agency disclosure rules.
Seat size and fees prominent too
Members of Congress also are concerned with the shrinking distance between airline seats, called seat pitch. American Airlines caused a stir earlier this year when it floated the idea of trimming coach seat pitch by another two inches; it eventually backed away from the idea.
Both the House and Senate have inserted a "seat size amendment" in their FAA bills, with the airlines reportedly agreeing to have the FAA develop some minimum standards (versus leaving the jurisdiction under the Department of Transportation, as it is today.)
A third critical issue Congress will address is the proliferation of fees for things like checked baggage, cancellations and seat assignments. The Senate is seeking to restrict fees to prices that are reasonable and appropriate based on the actual cost of these services to the airlines.
Many consumer advocates say the fees are a thinly veiled revenue source for the airlines rather than payment for a service rendered, but those on the other side say limiting fees will only force up airline ticket prices for everyone.