Congress last week proposed not one, but three ideas that could dramatically improve your next travel experience. I know that sounds like the opening line of a joke, but it’s true.
To get a sense of just how friendless travelers are in D.C., consider the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill, which funds the agency, among other things. It’s the best chance in four years to fix everything that’s wrong with flying, and maybe a few other travel problems, too. The current 273-page bill looks like it was written by airline lobbyists, save for one or two provisions that could help ordinary passengers.
For example, the powers that be tossed air travelers a table scrap with an interesting proposal that would help you when your luggage is misplaced by an airline. Specifically, it directs the Secretary of Transportation to create a rule that requires airlines to refund any baggage fees charged to passengers if luggage isn’t delivered within 24 hours, beginning at the time of the flight arrival. Currently, airlines only have to cough up these highly profitable fees if they lose your bag, and they only did that after the government forced them to.
But it’s a half-baked idea. While air travelers want their luggage to be delivered on time, they’re more concerned about getting to their destinations themselves — when their airline’s schedule promised it would get them there. To make this rule truly consumer-friendly, Congress should mandate that airlines refund airfares if they can’t deliver you to your destination within 24 hours of their schedule.
Second great idea: A proposed new law called the Stop Online Booking Scams Act, which would require all third-party hotel booking websites to disclose that they’re not affiliated with the hotel for which you’re making the reservation. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., says that the new requirement will help you tell the difference between legitimate hotel websites and fraudulent ones masquerading as name-brand sites.
But for guests, the more important disclosure is price. The hotel industry is awash in mandatory “resort” fees, lodging taxes and other surcharges, and hotel websites frequently don’t reveal these extra charges until the final booking screen. For consumers, the problem isn’t just knowing that they’re booking through a third party, but also knowing up front how much they’re going to pay for their room.
If the hotel industry, which supports the bill, really wants to help its customers, why not tweak it to require any hotel reservation site to disclose the full rate, including any mandatory fees, when you request a price quote?
Finally, we have the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act introduced by Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., which does something air travelers have wanted for a long time: It sets minimum dimensions for passenger seats on planes. Cohen says the average distance between rows of economy class seats has dropped, from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s, to about 31 inches today. The average width of an airline seat has also shriveled, from 18 inches to about 16½.