GOP shifts on new rights for air travelers

GOP shifts on new rights for air travelers

The Republican-led Congress is warming up to the idea of creating new consumer protections for travelers, an idea considered controversial just over a year ago.

GOP lawmakers rejected past efforts to establish minimum seat sizes and rein in airline fees, but provisions to do just that were easily added to must-pass aviation legislation this year.

Supporters of the push believe that both the public and lawmakers – who are frequent flyers themselves – may have finally reached their breaking point with the airlines, which have come under heavy scrutiny recently for their treatment of passengers.

“I think it’s getting harder and harder and harder for Congress to vote in support of the industry and against the consumer,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said in a telephone interview.

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Tensions between passengers and airlines have been escalating, culminating in an incident where a passenger was violently dragged off a United Airlines flight earlier this year, sparking international outrage and a wave of congressional bills targeting the industry’s customer service policies.

In direct response to the incident, lawmakers in both chambers incorporated language into a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization last month that would prohibit the forcible removal of passengers after they have already boarded a plane.

But the United flap isn’t the only airline practice that is catching the eye of Congress.

Airline seats — and whether to regulate them — has long been a hot-button issue on Capitol Hill. The average distance between seats has dropped from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today, while the average width of an airline seat has shrunk from 18 inches to about 16.5 inches.

Cohen and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) have been trying for years to require the government to develop minimum standards for seat sizes and the distance between rows on commercial flights, an effort they say is necessary to protect the safety and health of passengers.

The language was handily rejected last year by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in a 26-33 vote, while a similar effort led by Sen. Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerAmerica isn't ready to let Sessions off his leash Schumer celebrates New York Giants firing head coach: ‘About time’ GOP should reject the left's pessimism and the deficit trigger MORE (D-N.Y.) to stop seat sizes from getting smaller failed 42-54 on the Senate floor.

The votes mostly fell along party lines, with Republicans arguing that it’s not the government’s role to define comfort by mandating minimum seat sizes.

“I was voting against my self interest,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who is over 6 feet tall and chairs the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said last year. “I just honestly think it’s not the FAA’s place to define comfort.”

But this year, about one month after American Airlines announced it would slash legroom in its economy class seats by another two inches, the House Transportation panel added Cohen and Kinzinger’s seat size amendment to the FAA bill by voice vote, along with a block of other non-controversial amendments.

Seat size language was also included in the Senate’s FAA proposal.

Cohen said he worked with airline lobbyists to make a minor adjustment to his provision — this year’s amendment put FAA in charge of developing minimum standards instead of the Department of Transportation — but was still “shocked” by the stark turn around.

He said most of the major airlines agreed to back off their longstanding opposition to the amendment.

“I think they’ve started to get a little bit more sensitive to the fact they’ve become the telephone companies, in terms of the public outrage the public has toward them,” Cohen said.

Other consumer protections in the House FAA bill include banning voice calls during commercial flights, requiring large and medium airports to provide private rooms in every terminal for nursing mothers and requiring airlines to clearly specify how they will accommodate passengers in the event of widespread computer outrages – a provision inspired by a wave of airline IT glitches over the last year.

Across the Capitol, lawmakers have been wrestling with another contentious issue: the climbing extra fees that airlines have been charging for things like checked baggage, cancellations and seat assignments. 

Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyNet neutrality supporters predict tough court battle over FCC's repeal plan Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Driverless car bill hits Senate speed bump MORE (D-Mass.) unsuccessfully tried to attach an amendment to last year’s FAA bill that would prohibit airlines from imposing ancillary fees that the DOT deems unreasonable or disproportionate to the actual costs incurred by air carriers.

Opponents of the idea argued that it would hamstring the air carriers and lead them to drive up ticket prices.

The most advocates were able to get included in the 2016 FAA bill was a provision requiring airlines to at least refund baggage fees if luggage is lost or delayed.

This year, however, the committee adopted Markey’s language on fees unanimously.

“Airlines should not overcharge captive passengers just because they need to change or cancel their flight, and my amendment will protect consumers from these sky-high fees,” Markey said in a statement.

The policy is fiercely opposed by Airlines for America (A4A), the trade group representing most of the nation’s major airlines, who urged lawmakers to reject the provision.

“The price of airfare today is at a historic low when adjusted for inflation,” the organization said in a statement. “This provision is not warranted and would harm the flying public, leading to increased costs and reduced accessibility.”

Airlines have generally been able to count on congressional Republicans to have their back, as GOP lawmakers have long been reluctant to overregulate the industry.

But the successful addition of new consumer protections to both FAA bills, though not yet law, suggests that the political calculus is changing.

“We’d like the airlines to understand what they should be doing on their own for consumer protections that are reasonable, rational and common sense,” Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), chairman of the Transportation subcommittee on aviation, told The Hill last month. “And if they don’t do it on their own, we’re going to help them out.”