The struggling Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, which seems increasingly unlikely to receive congressional clearance for takeoff in its current form, has come down to two contentious issues for consumers: seat size and fare disclosure.
An amendment that would have set minimum seat room on planes was narrowly defeated last week by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee but will probably be considered again by Congress, either as a stand-alone bill or as an addition to the Senate version of the FAA bill. And a proposed addition that would reverse a consumer-friendly full-fare advertising rule sailed through the committee during a Thursday mark-up session but faces strong headwinds in the Senate.
Taken together, these issues could make the fight for the reauthorization bill, a once-every-four-year Washington ritual, must-watch drama for air travelers.
The Seat Egress in Air Travel (SEAT) Act proposed by Rep. Steve Cohen (D.-Tenn) faced stiff opposition from Republicans during the committee mark-up session. It would have established a minimum seat size and minimum distance between rows of seats for the safety and health of passengers.
The amendment failed by a 26-33 vote, but one Republican — Don Young of Alaska — broke ranks with his colleagues and voted to support the measure, suggesting that there may be some bipartisan support for the bill.
A representative for A4A, a trade association for airlines, said Congress did the right thing. “We believe that the government should not regulate, but instead market forces, which reflect consumer decisions, and competition should determine what is offered,” said Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for the group.
The brief debate about seat standards during an almost 10-hour mark-up session drew heavy criticism from air travelers, who were incredulous that their representatives would oppose a proposal that would set a minimum seat standard.
The average distance between rows of seats has dropped from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today, according to Cohen. The average width of an airline seat has also shrunk, from 18 inches to about 16 ½.
Cohen said he was “disappointed” with the vote but promised to continue fighting for minimum seat standards.
“This was a vote against the safety and health of airline passengers,” he said. “The FAA requires that planes be capable of rapid evacuation in case of emergency, yet they haven’t conducted emergency evacuation tests on all of today’s smaller seats. That’s unacceptable. It’s time for the FAA to take action.”
Cohen plans to introduce the amendment again when the bill comes to the floor of the House. Observers also say it’s likely that the companion bill in the Senate will contain language that requires the Department of Transportation to set minimum seat room standards, which would have to be reconciled with the House bill in committee. Either way, consumer advocates insist the fight for a safe and humane amount of space in an airline seat is far from over.
“The Cohen amendment addressed a pressing safety question,” said Sally Greenberg, the executive director of the National Consumers League (NCL), a consumer group. “Has the airline industry’s continuing efforts to pack ever more consumers into planes’ limited capacity compromised travelers’ ability to evacuate safely?”
Greenberg said her group will push the Senate to include his amendment when it takes up the FAA reauthorization bill.
The second key issue for consumers came as a surprise to some members of the House Transportation Committee. It was a measure introduced late in the session by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and proposed to allow airlines to prominently quote a fare without taxes and other mandatory fees.
If passed, it would reverse the DOT’s full-fare advertising rule, which requires airlines to quote the entire fare but allows them to break down the taxes and fees less prominently.
Permitting airlines to advertise their fares in this way would leave air travelers with an initial impression that ticket prices are less expensive than they are. By some informal estimates, it would translate into an additional $1 billion in annual revenue to the domestic airline industry.
Airlines lobbied the House to pass the same measure two years ago, but it was blocked by the Senate. Few expected the amendment, referred to as the Transparent Airfares Act, to be included in the FAA bill, which may explain why the proposal passed unanimously without any debate. (The discussion lasts until the 8:20 marker.)
An online petition to stop “transparent” airfares drew more than 100,000 signatures when the issue was first raised in 2014.
“The only reason that airlines want this rule is so that they can mislead and deceive passengers into thinking the price of flying is lower,” said Charles Leocha, president of Travelers United, a consumer group that represents air travelers.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.), who was instrumental in stopping the bill last time, promised to do it again.
“Once again, the airline industry’s pursuit of profits at the expense of its customers has proven relentless,” he said. “After failing two years ago, it is sad that some of my colleagues in the House would consider allowing a powerful special interest to try to cheat its customers. It’s time for the public to say ‘Enough is enough.’ ”
Menendez said that at a time when airlines are making record profits, they should be giving consumers more information, not less. He vowed to “not sit back and let the airlines purposely cover up the true cost of ticket prices in an attempt to gouge their customers.”
An A4A representative dismissed such concerns. “Airline customers deserve to know how much of the advertised ticket price is actually going to federal taxes, while still knowing the full price of air travel before they purchase a ticket, which is how every other consumer product, with the exception of gasoline, is sold,” Medina said. “Rep. Curbelo’s amendment will make airfare more transparent for consumers, while also holding the Washington accountable for taxes it imposes on every who flies.”
Consumer groups are digging in for a fight.
“Instead of seeking to gut existing consumer protections, we think the FAA reauthorization bill is an excellent opportunity to address the many anti-consumer practices that airline consolidation has enabled,” said NCL’s Greenberg. She said it’s time for Congress to address the “misery” airline passengers experience when they fly.
For now, the legislation seems headed toward gridlock over the issue of air traffic control privatization. Many believe the bill is likely to be extended by weeks, if not months. And that means the fate of these issues will remain up in the air for now.
Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at email@example.com.
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