It’s springtime for travel rights – but will it last?

PLANEFLOWER

It started with a proposed bill to set minimum seat sizes on planes. Then a senator took on hotel resort fees, and another put airline surcharges in his crosshairs. And then the Senate released one of the most passenger-friendly Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bills in a generation.

An unprecedented number of pro-consumer laws have been introduced in Congress in the past month, giving travelers hope that their next trip could be better than the last — smoother, more comfortable and with fewer surprise fees.

Call it a Travel Rights Spring. But will it last?

The reason for this legislation is obvious to anyone who travels. For decades, travelers — particularly airline passengers — have complained about shrinking seat sizes and rising fees. It wasn’t a question of whether Washington would intervene, but when.

“The airlines’ quest for ever more revenue has gone way too far,” says Richard Orr, a frequent traveler who works for a sporting goods chain in St. Charles, Mo. Like other travelers, he’s been surprised at the rapid-fire introduction of these proposed laws in February and March.

“Congress is finally taking concrete action,” he adds.

And how.

The prelude to the Travel Rights Spring was the House version of the FAA reauthorization bill, which contained a number of unexpected consumer provisions. Among them: a requirement to notify passengers of their consumer rights, the extension of the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection and a requirement that airlines refund baggage fees for luggage delayed more than 24 hours on domestic flights.

But Congress was just getting warmed up. A few days later, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) introduced the Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act, which would have established a minimum seat size and a minimum distance between rows of seats for the safety and health of passengers. Although it failed as an amendment to the FAA reauthorization, it remains a stand-alone bill.

Then the Senate took up the issue of minimum seat size when Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced plans to add an amendment similar to the SEAT Act to the Senate version of the FAA funding bill.

Congress doesn’t just want to help airline passengers. In late February, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced the Truth in Hotel Advertising Act of 2016, a law that would prohibit hotels from advertising a room rate that doesn’t include all mandatory fees. If passed, the law would effectively kill “resort fees” added to your bill after the initial price quote. Hotel guests are furious about these surcharges, which they say are unfair and deceptive.

Next, two Senate Democrats introduced the Forbid Airlines From Imposing Ridiculous Fees Act of 2016, or the FAIR Fees Act, which would prohibit air carriers from imposing fees that are “not reasonable and proportional” to the costs incurred by the air carriers.

“This measure will ground the soaring, gouging fees that contribute to airlines’ record profits and passengers’ rising pain,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who co-sponsored the FAIR Fees Act. “With all the frills of flying already gone, airlines are increasingly resorting to nickel-and-diming consumers with outrageous fees.”

But the biggest surprise came when the Senate introduced its version of the FAA bill, which contains numerous pro-consumer provisions, including better fee disclosure by airlines, automatic refunds for fees, and a review of how airlines reveal information on their decisions to delay or cancel flights, which may fully or only partially be the result of weather-related factors. These clauses sent shock waves through the aviation community, which believed a Republican-controlled Senate wouldn’t interfere with a deregulated airline industry.

Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an airline trade group, described the legislative proposals to regulate airline fees and seat size as laws “cloaked under consumer protection that will actually harm customers who would end up paying more to fly than they do today.”

“These efforts are a misguided attempt at re-regulation of an industry that has been deregulated — to the consumer benefit — since 1978,” she says.

Consumers beg to differ.

“Air travel has become so miserable,” says Willa Kubasta, a retired medical assistant and office manager from Renton, Wash. “I’d rather spend more and have the privilege of being treated humanely and not like the lowest class of citizen.”

Henry Strozeski, a former chief financial officer for a nonprofit organization in Winter Park, Fla., agrees that customers are tired of the airline price games — dangling a low fare in front of a passenger, only to add fees for things such as confirmed reservations and seats with a reasonable amount of legroom.

“Would it lead to higher prices?” he asks. “Yes, but the cost is worth it. Government mandates like air bags and seat belts increase the cost of automobiles, but most of us feel that the safety gains outweigh the increased cost. Repealing child labor laws would probably reduce the cost of labor for many items and keep more industries from moving overseas, but not many people would think the benefits outweigh the cost.”

Advocates say the timing is right and that they’ll fight to make the Travel Rights Spring a reality.

“This kind of consumer-friendly lawmaking doesn’t spring spontaneously out of Congress,” says Charlie Leocha, chairman of Travelers United, an advocacy organization. “These aviation changes are being proposed now after years of meeting week after week with House and Senate staffers about the importance of consumer issues.”

Kevin Mitchell, whose Business Travel Coalition represents frequent business travelers, says Washington has reached a tipping point.

“Many senators grasp the anger among their constituents toward access to power among special interests in Washington and their seemingly easy ability to have members of Congress do the bidding of airlines contributing money instead of consumers providing votes,” he says.

Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, an organization that represents air travelers, says his organization will keep pushing Congress to return to “reasonable regulation” and consumer-friendly competition policies. Congress has little choice, he says. The alternative is “continued degradation of air travel and more monopoly, hurting both passengers and the U.S. economy.”

Indeed, consumer representatives have set their sights on a higher goal.

“While seat sizes are an important issue for travelers, it is small ball compared to the larger, looming issues that travelers face,” says Trey Bohn, the executive director of Travelers’ Voice, an advocacy organization. At some point, Congress will need to address the lack of competition among airlines, he notes.

The solution? Banning future airline mergers, allowing foreign carriers to compete on domestic routes and sunsetting controversial “code-sharing” antitrust immunity provisions that allow airlines to collude. And that’s likely to make the fight for these consumer bills seem like a polite debate.

Is it time to re-regulate the airline industry?

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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 our help forum.

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  • KennyG

    “Advocates say the timing is right and that they’ll fight to make the Travel Rights Spring a reality.”. I agree, the timing is right. We are coming into an election season so its time for the legislators in Washington to blow smoke up everyones nether region. Whether it is a good or bad thing for the federal government to reregulate air travel [arguments can be made on both sides of the issue], rest assured, when and if [thats a big if] they do it, it will be set up not to benefit the individual traveler, but to be sure to lock in more profits for the airlines, who donate money to the politicians campaign funds. Be careful what you wish for, the laws of unintended consequences will surely bite you if the feds decide its a good idea to build another bureaucratic boondoggle.

  • pmcw

    The “regulatory” debate is often hijacked by partisan politics, and ends up with firm opinions that we need more or we need less. That is a straw man debate that no one can or should win.
    In my previous life I actually had to read some of the more complex bills that pour out of Congress – a practice that makes the Chinese water torture seem like a nice spring shower. The problem with the regulations enacted in these bills is they are anything but clear. I guess that’s what we should expect when we elect a passel of lawyers to run our country.
    What we need in regulations is clarity, but what we get is a mess of legal mumbo jumbo that is always littered with loopholes, and often includes duplicitous statements that take our courts years to define – recall the infamous statement, “we have to pass the bill so we can find out what’s in it.” I lost track of how many Supreme Court cases resulted from the Telecom Act of 1996, but I still recall Clinton’s Solicitor General stating it was the worse piece of legislation signed into law in the history of the U.S. It also played a large role in the dot com stock market bubble…
    Clearly written common sense regulations like those mentioned in this article hurt no one except companies that are out to rip off consumers. The keys to implementing successful regulations are clarity in the legislation and even and regular enforcement of the law. If any of these points is lacking, the consumer loses.

  • Nancy

    What has been missing so far from discussions of this issue that I have seen is the influence of business travelers and the businesses that pay their bills. This segment of customers are very important to the airline industry.

    Most business travelers are restricted by company policy to the cheapest coach level fare. This means that if they want a humane seating arrangement, they are out of pocket to pay for what the company views as an “upgrade” to Comfort+, Main Cabin Extra, or whatever their airline of choice calls it. (Unless they travel so frequently as to have extremely high status that they get upgrades).

    I’m sure many of these people like myself would be perfectly happy to have base fares go up if it meant the seat we are getting is better and we don’t have to pay out of pocket for an upgrade. But this sets up a political tug of war between the travelers and the companies who pay for their business travel – who don’t want that base fare to go up and impact their budgets.

    Who has more votes, and cash in DC? Remains to be seen but I think I can guess.

  • judyserienagy

    How sad that I would vote YES for airline regulation … but there doesn’t seem to be any other way to prevent the airlines from gouging their passengers. I’m all for paying for what you want … extra leg room, a checked bag, a sandwich, a martini, .

    But $200 to change a tix is the most ridiculous fee; it ranks right up there with a mandatory hotel resort fee. An airline change fee should be $25 or so up to 30 days out. Someone with a brain should head up a committee to determine “fair” fees and the airlines should adhere to those guidelines. This is not rocket science.

    While this article makes me hopeful, the lobbyists are strong-willed with pockets full of cash, so I’m not holding my breath.

  • Robert Delvo

    At a towering 5′ 7″ and 170 lbs most any airline seat will accommodate me. However in spite of my “Elite” status occasionally I have to sit in a “standard” seat. I very much feel the pain of a pregnant woman or a large person only so by the genetics of their loving parents. As a population we are getting taller and bigger. Yet the airlines are going the opposite way. After flying for 31 years it is getting less and less “fun”. People are being penned in like farm animals and then we are surprised when they act like animals. I hope all of us will write our congress folks and ask/demand civility in the air. I would like to take Rush Limbaugh, Claire McCaskill and Carrot Top and strap the 3 of them in a set of airline seats in a small closet for four hours will only one bathroom break. You would witness the fastest passing of legislation in history.

  • jim6555

    The airlines have brought all of this proposed regulation upon themselves. If their policies regarding seating, add-on fees, refunds, etc. were more reasonable, then there would not be an outcry for regulation. The greedy airline industry has pushed consumers to the brink and consumers have begun to fight back.

  • jim6555

    I would rather take the CEO’s of the three legacy carriers and strap them in to coach seats on an EIGHT HOUR+ flight such as Atlanta to London. Perhaps that experience will change the perspective of people who can immediately do something to rectify the current, uncomfortable situation. By the way, a one-way ticket from ATL-LHR on a nonstop midweek flight leaving in 10 days will set you back $1793 in coach, $2588 in premium coach or $7640 in business class. Not what I would consider to be inexpensive.