Photo (cc) by Photographing Travis
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?
Concrete action by Congress
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, Missouri. 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 says.
The prelude to this 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.
Tackling the ever-shrinking seat size
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.
Taking aim at ‘ridiculous fees’
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.