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Airline Changes Set for Congressional Approval: Pet, Seat Size, and Overbooking Rules

The final language for an air travel bill called the FAA Reauthorization Act has been approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and is expected to get final approval by the Senate. The new bill would secure funding for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for five years and establish new provisions on matters like pets onboard planes, involuntary bumping on overbooked flights, and research into minimum plane seat sizes.

This version of the FAA Reauthorization Act also accomplishes a number of other things: It waters down a ticketing provision that really worried experts, drops a fee-regulation provision that many consumer advocates considered important, and proposes a deadline on addressing the controversial issue of minimum plane seat sizes. Here’s what would come of the bill as it stands now, and what it all means for air travel.

New FAA-Regulated Airline Changes

At its most basic level, the bill extends FAA funding through 2023. This will allow the agency to continue to operate and improve air traffic control systems and airport developments without having to wait out cliffhanger budgets for each new fiscal year. The bill also addresses a long list of issues dealing with drones and lithium-ion batteries in flight—rapidly changing technologies that need to be carefully controlled for safety reasons.

The pro-consumer provisions of the act are relatively minor and, as far as I know, generated little organized opposition. For consumers, the current FAA Reauthorization Act will:

  • Prohibit placing in-cabin animals in overhead baggage bins
  • Require preferential boarding for pregnant passengers
  • Prohibit airlines from deplaning travelers already seated in a plane except for safety reasons (not for involuntary bumping situations)
  • Require airlines to publish specifics about compensation and adjustments available to travelers in the event of widespread disruptions in service
  • Expand assistance requirements for travelers with disabilities
  • Continue the ban on in-cabin voice communications, presumably including Wi-Fi calling
  • Continue the ban on in-flight smoking, specifically extending the ban to e-cigarettes
  • Extend the Advisory Committee for Consumer Protection through 2023, and create a Department of Transportation staff position called “Consumer Advocate”

Retained But Weakened: Large Ticket Agency Rules

The final bill retains a requirement that “large ticket agencies” provide a consistent level of consumer protection regardless of where travelers buy their tickets. The big online ticket agencies (OTAs) such as Expedia and strongly opposed the original requirement, as did metasearch systems, because they feared it would require them to provide information that the airlines do not give them.

Although some of the original language remains, it has been watered down to an extent that I believe even the OTAs should be able to live with: It now merely states that the DOT should issue rules that assure “a consistent level of consumer protection,” and specifically exempts the agencies if airlines don’t provide the required information. Although airlines and OTAs will continue to fight over who controls the online market, this bill tilts the level playing field very little in either direction.

Dropped: Fee Regulation

Early proposals called on DOT to require that airline fees be “reasonable” and closely related to the cost of providing those services. Although some consumer groups supported the language, it’s clear that airlines want/need to keep total revenues at certain levels: The low-fare airlines Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit get 40 to 47 percent of their total revenue from fees for “optional” services like carry-on bag rights. If government regulation forced airlines to lower those fees, the airlines would probably raise fares to compensate for the overall revenue loss. The result would no real gain for travelers. It seems naïve to think that if an airline was required to lower fees, it wouldn’t raise fares.

The main pain point for fees is the ticket-change fee, ranging from $200 to $700 on the big three airlines. Although that fee is certainly way above an airline’s out-of-pocket cost to make a change, it perversely may be beneficial to most travelers: The purpose of that fee isn’t as much to generate revenue as it is to prevent business travelers (with strict flight dates) from buying the cheapest fares and then switching flights. Without the pricey fee, airlines would probably have to increase fares to compensate for loss of revenue from no longer selling as many high-priced business tickets.

Addressed But Not Solved: Seat Size Regulation

The current bill requires that the FAA study whether today’s airline coach seating is too tight to allow passengers to get out of a survivable crash in the mandated time: 90 seconds. Many consumers had hoped for new rules that would require airlines to give economy passengers more room than the minimums in place now. But the argument has always been about safety, which is an actual FAA concern—rather than comfort, which isn’t. The FAA has said it has evidence that today’s tight seating is adequate for safe evacuation, but hasn’t provided that evidence. Airlines obviously oppose the notion of seat size requirements, and consumer groups mostly support it. But all this final bill requires is for FAA to review the evidence and report its findings with a year—and that FAA review could well conclude that today’s high densities are perfectly safe and won’t change.

Potential Air Travel Changes

The final bill also calls for a handful of future studies and reviews that could potentially result in changes that affect consumers, including airport infrastructure needs, improved communications of flight times to travelers, DOT enforcement of consumer protection rules, airline practices in informing travelers about involuntary rescheduling options, online access to consumer protection information, harmonization of service animal standards, and seat assignment privileges for travelers with disabilities.

Overall, most consumer advocates seem to believe these changes are largely in the category of fixing routine problems and updating current practices as needed. But if you’re a stickler for details, you can read the entire bill here.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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