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.”