5 new rights that Congress could create for airplane passengers

5 new rights that Congress could create for airplane passengers
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New consumer rights for airline passengers may soon be on the horizon. 

After video of a 69-year-old man being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight went viral earlier this year, lawmakers appear more willing than ever to establish new regulations that would provide greater protections for travelers — something Republicans have generally been wary to do in the past.

But the prime legislative vehicle for new airline consumer proposals — a long-term reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — has struggled to get off the ground. 

Even if Congress ends up passing only a short-term extension, however, lawmakers could still tack some bipartisan policy provisions onto the extension, which is what Congress did last year to address other issues.

Here are five new travel rights that lawmakers may grant to airline passengers.

No more removal from planes

The push for new airline consumer rights was fueled by videos that emerged on social media in April showing security officers forcibly removing a passenger from his seat and dragging him down the aisle by his wrists.

The passenger, who suffered several injuries and eventually settled a lawsuit against United, had refused to give up his seat to make room for United crew members who needed to be on the fully booked flight.

The incident sparked international outrage and put a spotlight on the industry’s customer service policies, including the practice of so-called “involuntary bumping.”

Airlines commonly overbook flights to accommodate for no-shows and can legally bump a passenger from a flight against their will, though issues are typically figured out prior to boarding.

In an effort to ensure another dragging episode doesn’t happen again, both the Senate and House FAA bill would ban airlines from involuntarily removing customers from a flight after they have already boarded the plane, aside from matters of safety or security.

The Senate bill would also require a federal review of airlines' overselling policies and require air carriers to clearly specify their boarding and bumping practices on a passenger’s flight itinerary, receipt or other direct form of communication.

And the House version would clarify that there are no federal limits on the level of compensation that can be provided to bumped passengers and would require air carriers to proactively offer customers compensation instead of waiting for them to request it.

Airline seat sizes 

Regulating the size of airline seats 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. 

Reps. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) have tried 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.

Republicans have generally argued that it’s not the government’s role to define comfort by mandating minimum seat sizes.

But this year, about one month after American Airlines announced it would slash legroom in its economy class seats by another two inches (a proposal it later abandoned), the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee added Cohen and Kinzinger’s seat size amendment to the FAA bill by voice vote, along with a block of other uncontroversial 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 he was still “shocked” by the stark turnaround.

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

Reining in fees

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

Sen. Ed Markey (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 have 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 Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee adoptEdward MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyDems lambaste Trump’s ‘outrageous’ EPA chemical safety pick Dems plan to make gun control an issue in Nevada Dem senator pitches ideas for gun control after shooting MORE’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, which is urging lawmakers to reject the provision in the final bill. 

“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.”

Banning in-flight voice calls

Currently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prohibits using mobile devices on certain radio frequencies onboard commercial flights, which includes voice calls.  

But the rules don’t apply to Wi-Fi and other ways that passengers can use to make phone calls thanks to new technology. 

Some have opposed in-flight phone calls because they are disturbing, while others argued that the decision should ultimately be up to airlines.

The Obama administration pushed for rulemaking last year to require airlines and ticket agents to at least notify customers about whether their air carrier allows passengers to make in-flight voice calls using mobile wireless devices.   

But both the House and Senate bills would go even further. The measures would entirely ban voice calls on flights, which would “ensure passengers have a more enjoyable flying experience,” according to a House bill summary. 

Airport nursing rooms

There have been ongoing efforts in Congress to ensure that breastfeeding mothers have access to clean and private rooms in every airport terminal. 

While some airports do have lactation rooms, facilities are not required by law to provide them. 

The aviation legislation in both chambers would require all large and medium hub airports in the U.S. to provide a private and convenient space for nursing mothers. The airports would have two years to install them in every terminal.

“Even though we would never expect travelers to eat their meals in bathrooms stalls, new mothers are often directed to airport toilets to feed their children,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said in a statement.

“If airports still have spaces for smoking lounges in 2017, surely we can find clean and accessible spaces to allow new mothers to express breast milk since breastfeeding has long-lasting health benefits that protect mothers and children from illnesses.”