FAA bill offers a mixed bag for air travelers

It looks as if the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill can fly, after all.

It took five years of debate and more than two dozen short-term extensions, but the legislation finally passed this week.

When I started writing this column in 2009, almost every trade group in Washington told me that the FAA bill was the single most important piece of legislation for the travel industry. Setting aside for a moment the teensy fact that our preferred method of transportation is the car, the bill’s long-delayed approval raises two key questions. First, how did travelers fare amid all the legislative horse-trading? And second, are passengers adequately represented in Washington today?

The answer to the first question is: Travelers did so-so.

Ask Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), who heads the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and he’ll tell you about the overall benefits to the aviation sector. And it would be unfair to dismiss those; they include a shiny next-generation air traffic control system and keeping the FAA humming along for the next four years. No doubt there will be some trickle-down benefits to passengers from what Mica called a “long-term blueprint for aviation programs.”

When you talk to congressional staff insiders about what’s in the bill for rank-and-file air travelers, you get a different response. Staffers with whom I spoke pointed to two specific provisions that they said would directly benefit consumers.

The first is a requirement to turn the Department of Transportation’s current tarmac-delay planning rules into law. Airlines and airports must have a plan to provide food, water, restroom facilities, comfortable cabin temperatures and access to medical treatment on delayed aircraft. Also, airlines must allow passengers to deplane within a time frame determined by the transportation secretary. And the bill establishes a consumer protection committee to advise the DOT on carrying out service improvements to benefit air passengers.

Some observers, though, are skeptical.

“Some seemingly pro-consumer provisions of the bill have been so watered down by industry lobbying that they are likely to be of little value,” says Edward Hasbrouck, an industry watcher and author of “The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World.”

Hasbrouck says he’s particularly wary of the new advisory committee, which calls for only one consumer representative but allows for two industry representatives and one government representative. “An enormous amount will depend on who is appointed to represent consumers on this committee,” he says.

Who represents consumers now? It’s hard to say.

Travelers don’t speak in Washington with a single voice, and at no time was that clearer than during the drawn-out debate over the FAA bill. Consumer groups, all with their own agendas, bickered over proposed language that would have required airlines to disclose a full fare and squabbled about the merits of stricter tarmac-delay laws.

None of those items made it into the final bill. A better-organized and better-funded airline industry exploited those internal divisions, and in the end, that hurt consumers.

“Airlines have the upper hand in Washington, especially in Congress,” says Kevin Mitchell, whose Business Travel Coalition represents corporate travelers in Washington. The airlines — individually and collectively through their trade association, Airlines for America— have “more financial resources and lobbyists in the halls of Congress than do consumer advocacy groups collectively.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t disclose that I have a horse in this race. Four years ago, I helped start an organization called the Consumer Travel Alliance, and although I have stepped back and today serve as its volunteer ombudsman, it has given me a front-row view of the role travel advocates play — and don’t play — in Washington.

Charles Leocha, who heads the travel alliance, says that the system is slowly changing but that to get a sense of the impact consumer groups are having in Washington, you need to take a step back. Many of the most significant changes are happening at the regulatory level, where consumers were hardly represented even a few years ago. Now, it’s rare to see the DOT making a ruling without comments from several consumer groups.

The most effective advocacy comes from building relationships on the ground, “working together with congressional delegations, agencies and all of the major associations to keep the consumer voice included in new rulemakings and laws,” Leocha says.

Yes, the FAA bill was important, he says. But you shouldn’t judge the effectiveness of consumer groups based on a single bill. You should evaluate them on the lower-profile, but equally important, rulings and advisories that shape so much of the air travel experience.

Maybe the fact that air travelers don’t speak with one voice is more of a strength than a weakness. Like air travelers, the groups representing them are diverse. They couldn’t find a common cause in the FAA bill, but perhaps they will next time.

So to answer my second question about whether passengers are adequately represented in Washington: no way.

“Consumer lobbyists were hopelessly outnumbered and outspent by the airline industry,” says Hasbrouck, pointing to the final outcome of the FAA bill, which favored the airlines.

But that’s slowly changing. And that’s good news not only for air travelers but for all travelers.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • TonyA_says

    I couldn’t vote.

    Chris, I think you forgot this bill allows about 30,000 drones to be used for domestic surveillance. It requires the integration of both public and civil (meaning private) drones into our airspace.  So one sure loser is us – our privacy.



  • TonyA_says

    (a) IN GENERAL. — The Secretary of Transportation shall establish an advisory committee for aviation consumer protection to advise the Secretary in carrying out activities relating to airline customer service improvements.
    (b) MEMBERSHIP. —The Secretary shall appoint the members of the advisory committee, which shall be comprised of one representative each of —
    (1) air carriers;
    (2) airport operators;
    (3) State or local governments with expertise in consumerprotection matters; and
    (4) nonprofit public interest groups with expertise in consumer protection matters.
    (f) DUTIES. — The duties of the advisory committee shall include —
    (1) evaluating existing aviation consumer protection programs
    and providing recommendations for the improvement of such programs, if needed; and
    (2) providing recommendations for establishing additional aviation consumer protection programs, if needed.

    (h) TERMINATION.—The advisory committee established under
    this section shall terminate on September 30, 2015

    Since when did the airlines and airports represent consumers or consumer protection?  It’s their nasty behavior that consumers need protection from.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Airlines will always win this battle. Despite the taxpayers bailing them out, they still show contempt for the consumers.

    Personally, I would’ve let ’em fail.

    If you have a bad business model, you don’t deserve to stay in business.

    A friend I work with (much older than I) talks of the days of regulation with FOND memories. I don’t remember much about those days other than flying to Di$ney as a kid and eating a HOT breakfast in coach…

    But anyone else care to chime in? How much more expensive was it? Weren’t the seat width/pitch sized a bit better?

  • TonyA_says

    I remember the days when PanAm and other airlines used to give away shoulder bags, tooth brushes and paste, combs, socks and sleeping masks – for coach class. I think TWA also gave out some of this. I don’t remember getting anything from Braniff or Eastern. Also the napkins were cloth and there were more leather seats.

    Nowadays if you want service, you need to fly primarily Singapore Air, Cathay Pacific, Asiana, Thai Airways or Qatar.

    The best thing Congress can do is to declare the USA completely Open Sky. Let the foreign airlines compete here for domestic flights. Let’s see what happens.

    How come you never hear something like that from a Nader, Consumer Alliance or Ron Paul? Let’s have a lot of competition. May the best airline win, period.

  • $16635417

    I recall the ’70’s and getting hot breakfasts twice on the same journey. A one-stop flight, no change of planes, with two 45 minute segments. I was a kid, so I don’t recall seat width and pitch.

    If you look at the success of one of your favorite carriers (jk), Spirit has minimized seat pitch and service yet the consumer has responded by flocking to them in droves. Since  airfares aren’t regulated, air travel has simply become a commodity. 

    Airlines have responded by cutting costs to reflect that attitude as well. (They’ve also hooked the regular traveler with their frequent flyer programs.)

    Imagine a world where Spirit, Delta, American, United and Southwest had the same fare (and no fees) on the route you want, no loyalty program and a similar schedule, now how would they get you to choose them? What factors would influence your decision?

    Something like this was a big deal to me and I also remember convincing my parents to try it when we took a flight:

    Video games on a plane!

  • scapel

    Let’s don’t sell ourselves too short. With Elliott here being our spokesman we can contact our senators and representatives on important matters. We can see how they vote. Did they vote like Elliott thought they ought to? Thank you Elliott for being our spokesperson in consumer affected matters.
    I’m not sure about the drones. What do they achieve. I get a birds eye view of my house and back yard from google earth. If the drones can help in picking up covert activities, so much the better.
    In order for us to fight terriorism, we have to give up some personal privacy. Don’t blame TSA, Airlines, or US Government Go to the cause of all this–potential terriorist that want to hurt us and our way of life.


    The above video I had not known about at the time, but it will show you some “consumers”. If you are an American, this should make you proud.

  • Kotch11

    What can one say?  It’s politics as usual

  • TonyA_says

    IMHO, Elliott has almost zero chance of being appointed in the Advisory Committee. He is too consumer protection oriented and the airline lobby will oppose him.

    That said, Elliott and folks like him can do a better job educating consumers than the government can.
    Social Media is powerful.

  • MarkKelling

    I flew once in the regulated era in 1977 on a flight from IAH to IAD on a 737 in coach.  It cost me a month’s salary for the round trip (of course I made a lot less even in inflation adjusted terms back then, but it was still expensive).  The seats were comfortably spaced for leg room, we got a hot lunch (lasagna, 3-bean salad, and a piece of cake – all were perfectly formed cubes of inedible crap), 2 glasses of wine poured from a full size bottle (other alcohol throughout the flight was available but you were limited to 1 drink per hour), blankets and pillows, a choice from about 50 magazines and several newspapers if we wanted to read.  All provided by young slim flight attendants who appeared to actually be happy to be there.

    As far as the expense, a quote from Wikipedia from Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in the airline deregulation article states that the lowest priced LAX to JFK round trip flight back then was $1,442 in inflation adjusted dollars.  You can fly that same round trip today for $300.  Would anyone you know want to pay that much more on every flight just to get a hot meal and a couple inches more leg room?

    The seats are the same width as they were back then.  After all, a 737 is the same width it was then and the airlines have not stolen inches from the seats to make the aisles wider.  It is the average traveller that is wider which makes the seats seem narrower.  Of course when you had more leg room you could stretch in that direction which also probably made the seats seem wider.  I know when I sit in an exit row with the extra leg room, the seats seem wider compared to when I sit in a normal coach row with no leg room. (Slightly off topic but even Southwest has gotten into the cram em in mode now — they added an extra row of seats to all their planes recently.)

    I think your friend who remembers things were better back then probably flew for business on the company dime.  And I would agree that some things were better back then.  There were a lot fewer people flying which meant a lot fewer people in the airports, a lot fewer planes in the sky meaning less delays.  And the people who did fly were more civilized because they were not treated like sardines in a can.  But the masses have voted with their wallets and the era of commodity air travel is here to stay like it or not.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Like I said, I made one 3 hour flight in the early 80s as a kid. I remember the hot food and the FAs giving me a pair of plastic wings and some coloring books.

    Said friend (and I) always fly on the company dime, so perhaps your assessment of his “fond memories” are correct.

  • TonyA_says

    Here’s what some pilots think about drones …

    Commercial pilots have raised safety concerns.
    Although pilots are required to spend time flying planes and are tested
    on their abilities to hold licenses, no similar rules exist for the
    controllers of remote aircraft. Likewise, the FAA doesn’t certify drones
    like passenger planes against engine failure or wings falling off.

    Capt. Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association,
    says the people who remotely control aircraft should meet the same
    training and qualifications as regular pilots. His group is also
    concerned about controllers losing contact with drones.”We have a long way to go,” Moak says of having drones fly safely with passenger jets.Despite their many successful flights in Afghanistan, drones occasionally crash.

    In August, for instance, an unmanned Shadow drone collided with a C-130 cargo plane. The cargo plane had to make an emergency landing at a base in eastern Afghanistan, but nobody was injured.

    A drone occasionally goes awry here, too. In August 2010, the military considered shooting down a Navy Fire Scout drone that wandered close to restricted airspace near Washington, D.C., after controllers lost their link to the drone. But controllers regained contact.


  • MarkKelling

    The ’80s were after deregulation, but airlines were still trying then to attract customers with great customer service and experiences and there was still most of the regulation era amenities being offered.  Then your discount airlines, spikes in fuel prices, and security issues that drove prices down and costs up came along and made the airlines start dropping the extras.  

    I flew Southwest exclusively back then (late ’80s) because it was the airline of choice for my employer and I didn’t need to fly anywhere that SW didn’t go so I didn’t know how things were going on the other airlines. I just expected everyone went with the cattle stampede boarding process, no food, and free drinks which worked so well for SW.

  • DavidYoung2

    Problem is we consumers want our both great service and cheap prices.  We forget the old adage, “You get what you pay for.”  We can jet off from LAX to Paris for under $900 in 2012 dollars.

    Really, people, be reasonable.  For $900, you get safe travel to Europe — bring your own food (they’re not restaurants) and that’s about it.  But that’s all we, collectively as consumers, want to pay for.  We have forced fares, and thus service, to the very bottom. 

    There’s no such thing as a free lunch…….

  • Guest

    I think fares and services both must be managed so that no one suffers. There for such legislation must be appreciated !!! 

  • Guest

    I think fares and services both must be managed so that no one suffers. There for such legislation must be appreciated !!!

  • Guest

     I think fares and services both must be managed so that no one suffers. There for such legislation must be appreciated !!!

    Dubai desert safari

  • Guest

    I think fares and services both must be managed so that no one suffers. There for such legislation must be appreciated !!!


  • Asifsaddiqui

     I think fares and services both must be managed so that no one suffers. There for such legislation must be appreciated !!!