Newly passed air travel legislation is ‘an amazing win for consumers’

By | July 17th, 2016

After months of debate over the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, and at an apparent impasse over privatizing air traffic control, Congress has settled on a compromise — with some unexpected benefits for the average air traveler.

The House and Senate have agreed on an extension that would fund the agency at current levels through September 2017. Among other things, it would also require airlines to seat families with children together without charging them more, accelerate the security screening process and issue prompt refunds for baggage fees when luggage is lost for more than 12 hours.

The legislation surprised consumer advocates, who had expected a far less ambitious extension bill.

“This is an amazing win for consumers,” said Charles Leocha, president of Travelers United, a Washington nonprofit organization that advocates for airline passengers. “It is not everything we wanted, but it is far more than consumers would have gotten with a straight extension.”

It also appeared to take aback airline lobbyists, who anticipated few, if any, new consumer regulations in the extension.

“We believe that provisions designed to re-regulate airline pricing and services are bad for airline customers, employees, the communities we serve and our overall U.S. economy,” said Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an airline trade organization.

Perhaps the most troubling item for airlines, in terms of new regulation, is a rule that directs the transportation secretary to establish a policy to allow children under age 13 “to be seated in a seat adjacent to the seat of an accompanying family member over the age of 13” at no additional cost. There is an exception for when such a seat assignment would require an upgrade to another cabin class or a seat with extra legroom or seat pitch, for which additional fees generally are required. But as a practical matter, this policy is certain to chip away at the billions of dollars in seat reservation fees the industry collects from passengers annually.

Related story:   Nationally syndicated

The rule was welcomed by the Family Travel Association, which had been pushing for the legislation.

“We’re encouraged that Congress has recognized the challenges families face when traveling and is making it a priority that airlines ensure they sit together when flying,” said Rainer Jenss, the group’s founder and president. “After all, families represent one of the largest economic drivers of the travel industry, so ensuring their satisfaction isn’t just the right thing to do. It makes economic sense.”

The extension bill’s greatest impact could be felt when it comes to the Transportation Security Administration, and is almost certainly a direct response to the lengthy security lines travelers have faced this summer. The bill offers several measures intended to expedite screening, including one that directs the agency to keep the PreCheck program’s screening lines open and available during peak and high-volume travel times at appropriate airports. Another mandates “every practicable effort” to provide expedited screening at standard lanes during times when PreCheck is closed.


The bill also requires the TSA to deploy “private sector solutions” in order to increase PreCheck program enrollment. It orders the government to offer secure online and mobile enrollment opportunities and partnerships to collect biographic and biometric identification information. This would be done through kiosks, mobile devices or other mobile platforms to increase enrollment flexibility.

In short, Congress is telling the TSA to shorten the lines, quickly.

“These are much-needed reforms, which are good for consumers,” said Kendall Creighton, a spokeswoman for Flyersrights.org, an advocacy group for air travelers, noting that long security lines have been a source of agony for air travelers since the spring. It remains to be seen whether these steps will make a difference for the busy holiday air travel season later this year.

Related story:   When travel companies sell their mailings lists, junk mail becomes an unwanted souvenir

The new seating rules are not the only ones upsetting the airline industry. A proposed rule affects another source of almost pure profit: baggage fees. Under current Department of Transportation rules, luggage fees must be refunded only if a bag is lost. The extension directs the DOT to create a rule to require airlines to promptly and automatically refund “any ancillary fees” paid for checked baggage if it is delivered later than 12 hours after the arrival of a domestic flight or 15 hours for an international flight. It is unclear what portion of the $3.8 billion in baggage fees collected last year was kept under those circumstances, but under this new rule it is almost certain that baggage-fee revenue will decline.

Congress had also considered legislation that would have required airlines to notify passengers of their consumer rights; prevented them from imposing fees that were not reasonable and proportional to the costs incurred; and established minimum seat room standards. Those measures have been shelved until the current extension expires.

Larry Berman, a Washington attorney and frequent traveler, said air travel has become so uncivilized and dehumanizing that stronger legislation is needed to restore some dignity. Seats are too small for the average passenger, fees are out of control, service is all but extinct and the airline industry is a monopoly, for all intents and purposes, he noted.

“I’d like to see the return of the Civil Aeronautics Board, the federal agency that regulated airline service,” Berman said. The agency was phased out in 1985 after the airline industry was deregulated.

Related story:   Hey Southwest, if this isn't bait-and-switch then why does it feel that way?

Will that happen? Observers of the FAA funding process have learned to never say never. After all, who would have predicted this consumer-friendly extension? Re-regulating the industry, while improbable, is not impossible.



  • A SURPRISE AND A GOOD SURPRISE. AS A LONG TIME TRAVELER IT WILL BE A WELCOME CHANGE.

  • A SURPRISE AND A GOOD SURPRISE. AS A LONG TIME TRAVELER IT WILL BE A WELCOME CHANGE.

    from Naoma@cheerful.com (currently living in France for 3 months)

  • These seem like really small, common-sense changes. In what parallel universe is refunding fees for seriously delayed baggage and allowing small children to sit with their parents a “re-regulation of airline pricing and services?” If they lose your bag, they have not rendered a service and have no business charging for it.

  • MF

    Not to be more cynical than usual, but did the industry lobbyists not spend enough on that green-tinged ‘milk’ for the good folks on the aviation committee, or did our congress-persons throw a bone to voters in an election year???

  • ctporter

    Good news on the refund on baggage fees, not sure how the seating families together will work out as I think there are way to many variables.

  • M B

    I foresee unintended consequences of the family seating rule where families with 14 years and older kids will be displaced. That said, there is no perfect system.

  • Ted Hochstadt

    The only real win for air traveler comfort and convenience would be the re-regulation of air travel. I remember fondly traveling by air during the regulated 1960s and 70s when an airline ticket was as good as money and could be exchanged without penalty for other flights, even travel to other destinations of similar mileage or for travel on other airlines and, of course could be refunded without penalty. While ticket prices were probably higher than today’s non-refundable fares, they were not exorbitant and were probably lower than today’s refundable fares and many last minute fares. They were all-inclusive (no luggage, meal, or selective seat charges). With no price competition, airlines had to compete by offering better service and travelers did not have to spend hours researching airline prices for simple trips from point A to point B.

  • Maxwell Smart

    How is this different to now ?
    You can’t sit a child next to an unknown adult, who could be a paedophile now & what does prompt mean ? Within a year or 2 ?

  • AMA

    Oh yes they can, and do. There are hundreds of stories, here on the forums, from families who have had their six-year-old seated ten rows away from either parent. I notice your spelling of “paedophile”, you must not be an American. Maybe European airlines are more civilized.

  • marathon man

    Good stuff
    Its just a shame we all let the airlines slowly add in these fees and policies over the years and no one fought them because we all somehow believe a good american business always does the right thing. And now we have to fight and battle and lobby to win back a few small concessions and we are all gleeful about it.

    Next time how about we step up and halt things before they happen.

  • DChamp56

    Still nothing on a minimum seat pitch huh? That’s sad….

  • BubbaJoe123

    The baggage rule isn’t going to make much of a difference. According to the article below, about 2 million bags get lost, delayed, or damaged every year. Even if all of those are delays that now require a refund, that’s around $50 million a year. Drop in the bucket.

  • BubbaJoe123

    “While ticket prices were probably higher than today’s non-refundable fares, they were not exorbitant”

    They were exorbitant. Airfares today, INCLUDING all those charges, are half of what they were prior to deregulation.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/02/how-airline-ticket-prices-fell-50-in-30-years-and-why-nobody-noticed/273506/
    Using pre-deregulation pricing, the cheapest ticket JFK-LAX round trip would be around $2,000.

  • BubbaJoe123

    If you didn’t want to pay that fee, you were entirely free to buy a changeable ticket. You bought a ticket with a change penalty because it was cheaper. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Minimum seat pitch is already heavily regulated for safety reasons – the FAA has stringent rules on minimum evacuation times.
    If you want more pitch for comfort reasons, you’re entirely welcome to buy it, or fly airlines with more seat pitch – don’t force everybody to pay for it if they don’t care, however.
    I don’t fly Spirit for a lot of reasons – their uncomfortable seats are one of them.

  • Kerr

    FAA evacuation times are based upon how long it takes to exit the plane, not how much leg room there is for each seat.
    https://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/advisory_circulars/index.cfm/go/document.information/documentID/1019850
    http://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?contentKey=4008

  • BubbaJoe123

    If seat pitch were so tight it impeded evacuation times, then the FAA wouldn’t allow that seat pitch. Greater seat pitch is certainly nice (getting Comfort+ is of the major reasons I value my status at Delta), but it’s not something that the gov’t should be regulating beyond safety concerns, just as there’s no reason to regulate the quantity or quality of snacks or beverages offered inflight.

  • Dan Keller

    I agree. I didn’t say anything about my choice of which ticket to buy. I was commenting on the proposal in Congress to limit the fees to ones that are “proportional to the costs incurred.” You inferred something from my comment which was not implied.

  • BubbaJoe123

    You said the fee was “outrageous.” I didn’t have to infer anything, you said right upfront what you thought about the fee.
    If you’d prefer that I phrased it as “ONE didn’t want to pay the fee, ONE is entirely free” etc., fine.

  • Dan Keller

    You’re still missing the point. “Outrageous” in reference to the “costs incurred.”

  • wilcoxon

    Except they don’t. Seat pitch is too small for men much over average height to even fit in the seats. At 6’4″, I literally can’t sit in half the coach seats on US airlines. Airlines should be required to offer coach price seats that will actually fit people.

  • BubbaJoe123

    1. If you’re 6′ 4″, more than 99% of Americans are shorter than you are. So, you’re a really exceptional case.
    2. They do offer coach seats that will fit you. They might cost extra. Just as someone who’s very heavy has to buy two seats, you might need to buy extra legroom seats.

  • BubbaJoe123

    The “cost incurred” are completely irrelevant. Pricing is rarely based on cost. I don’t care what a given product or service costs a vendor, I care what they’re charging me for.
    If the airlines decided that all ticket changes on non-refundable tickets would be printed on paper made from $100 bills they shredded and turned into printer paper, that would mean that a non-refundable ticket change would cost them a lot more than $250. Wouldn’t have any relevance to the fee, though.

  • wilcoxon

    I guess, to me, it’s completely different because all airlines used to have seats that would fit people 6’4″ (even 6’6″ but not very comfortably). They’ve now removed enough legroom to increase profits that I no longer fit and are trying to increase profits even more by forcing me to buy coach+ (or even business). To me, if an airline is going to have such small legroom, they must be required to make seats with reasonable legroom available (at no extra cost) to those that require it (exit row, coach+, whatever).

  • joycexyz

    Well, it’s a start…and a good one.

  • Dan Keller

    Reductio ad absurdum

  • BubbaJoe123

    An amusing illustration. A business’s costs are totally irrelevant, and it’s utter foolishness for politicians to make demands about pricing based on what they perceive those costs to be.

  • Dan Keller

    Politicians/administrations at various levels certainly make business pricing decisions, eg, state insurance commissions deciding on allowable premium increases based on demonstrated losses, overhead, etc.; public utility commissions regulating costs based on expenses; contracts for public works being given out on a cost-plus basis, to name a few.

  • mbods2002

    Well, that answers a question I was wondering about yesterday. Southwest outbound flight was it’s usual A, B, C order of boarding. Inbound we were told that families with children can board after the A’s, before the B’s. I’m sure they appreciated that. On my outbound flight there was a family of 4 who were split up throughout the full plane (only middle seats left) because they had “C” seating.

  • That is the way Southwest always works. Either the family in the outbound flight didn’t hear the announcement for family boarding or it was a flight with too many families on it. Flights to Orlando for example sometimes either cancel family boarding or lower the age limit on the kids as it would include most of the passengers.

  • BubbaJoe123

    The first is a quasi-public-service, the second is a regulated monopoly, and the third (cost-plus contracting) is an ongoing source of colossal waste.

  • Dan Keller

    How do you figure that insurance companies are “quasi-public service?” They are definitely private, and many are publicly traded corporations. Since you apparently insist on having the last word, do it.

  • BubbaJoe123

    For services like ACA (where premiums are regulated based on required payout ratios), they’re acting as quasi-public-entities. Outside of that situation, there’s no good rationale for premium regulation.

  • James

    One way it will now be gamed: If gthe aisle seat has a fee, the adult books the middle seat and then demands the aisle for no extra fee… So, middle seats will now cost as much as the aisle, raising the costs.

  • Travelnut

    Hmm. It wasn’t clear from the article whether a family with small children pays some amount to guarantee seat selection, or they get it free. So for example, family has dad, mom, a 14 year old, and two kids younger than 14. Do they pay three seat selection fees, two fees, or zero? I wouldn’t be terribly annoyed if the family had to pay something. I wish they would just do away with the fees altogether.

We want your feedback.Your opinion is important to us. Here's how you can share your thoughts:
  • Send us a letter to the editor. We'll publish your most thoughtful missives in our daily newsletter or in an upcoming post.
  • Leave a message on one of our social networks. We have an active Facebook page, a LinkedIn presence and a Twitter account. Every story on this site is posted on those channels. The conversation ranges from completely unmoderated (Twitter) to moderated (Facebook and LinkedIn).
  • Post a question to our help forums or ask our advocates for a hand through our assistance intake form. Please note that our help forum is not a place for debate. It's there primarily to assist readers with a consumer problem.
  • If you have a news tip or want to report an error or omission, you can email the site publisher directly. You may also contact the post's author directly. Contact information is in the author tagline.