Overall, the final version of the FAA bill includes positive gains for everybody, especially consumers. Perhaps just as important, it drops some important provisions of the original bill that at least one big stakeholder group strongly opposed. And it adds one provision that generated a lot of hype but will probably generate no meaningful results.
FAA funding: Extension of FAA funding for five years is the big win for every stakeholder. It means the FAA can go on with its work with a sure funding base: No more year-end budget cliffhangers, at least for a while. It can make financial plans in a long-term framework. And it addresses some key safety issues about drones and lithium-ion batteries, among others. The stakeholders who hoped for privatization didn’t get what they wanted, but the five-year extension addresses many of the same issues.
Consumer benefits: The bill includes a lot of specific consumer benefits. It extends the ban on in-flight smoking to e-cigarettes, continues the Advisory Committee for Consumer Protection through 2023, adds a DOT staff position of “Consumer Advocate,” prohibits placing in-cabin animals in overhead baggage bins, requires preferential boarding for pregnant passengers, prohibits airlines from deplaning travelers already seated in a plane except for safety reasons (a “Dr Dao rule”), requires airlines to publish specifics about compensation and adjustments provided travelers in the event of widespread disruptions in service, and adds requirements to assist disabled travelers. As far as I can tell, nobody seriously opposed these provisions.
Fare advertising: Probably the bill’s most important consumer benefit is that Congress dropped a provision that would have overturned the Department of Transportation’s all-up fare posting rule. Airlines wanted to advertise and post fares that exclude taxes and fees, and retaining the full-fare display rule is a big win for consumers. Airlines lost, but they’ve been living with the all-up rule and will survive intact.
Fee regulation: The airlines’ big win is that the final bill dropped the provision that the DOT regulate airline fees as “reasonable” and “related to costs.” This proposal was likely the airlines’ red line. Although airlines don’t highlight the fact, most fees are not designed to offset costs, they’re designed either to direct market behavior or to generate additional revenue “because we can.” Consumer advocates generally view this as a loss, but the fight isn’t over. Outrageous ticket change fees remain a major pain point with travelers, and the airlines need to address this issue rather than ignore it.
Large travel agencies: Here again, watering down the language on “large travel agencies” is a big win for the online travel agencies (OTA) such as Expedia and Priceline and metasearch agencies such as Google Flights and TripAdvisor. It’s also a big win for consumers. This section of the bill specifies how those agencies should display fares and fees and provide information and customer support to air travelers. Language in the original proposed bill would have made it almost impossible for big agencies to sell airline tickets or even display airfares, but the final language is loose enough to avoid the most severe limitations. This is a loss for the airlines; they’d really like to get rid of those pesky side-by-side fare comparisons. Although the bill will likely make life a bit more complicated for the OTAs and metasearch folks, it’s no longer the existential threat that the original bill was. They might not like it but they can live with it. And consumers keep multi-airline fare displays.
Seat standards: I’ll admit it, I was wrong in my previous column. At the last minute, the requirement that the FAA “study” the need for regulation of airline seat size morphed into a requirement that the FAA must issue such regulations. But I’ll stick by my earlier conclusion that coach seats won’t get any roomier. FAA regulation of seat size isn’t about seat comfort, it’s about safety — adequate room for passengers to evacuate a survivable crash in 90 seconds. And the most likely result is that the final FAA recommendations will say even today’s tightest seating meets that standard.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at [email protected] Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)
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