U.S. Lawmakers Move Against Airline Fees and Bad Behavior, at Last

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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.

And how.

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.

Industry pushback

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.

Pricing games

“Air travel has become so miserable,” says Willa Kubasta, a retired medical assistant and office manager from Renton, Washington. “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, Florida, 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 leg room.

“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 that 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.”

Legislators sense a tipping point for constituents

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.

Christopher Elliott’s latest book is “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). You can get real-time answers to any consumer question on his new forum, elliott.org/forum, or by emailing him at [email protected].

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