A bipartisan bill put forward Wednesday by the Senate transportation committee would offer several new consumer protections for airline passengers, but steers clear of a controversial proposal to privatize the nation’s air traffic control (ATC) system.

“This is a good starting place for both parties to come together and hopefully get something passed,” Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said in an announcement jointly released by he and committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.)

As Nelson’s comment suggests, the Senate bill, which would fund the FAA only through Sept. 2017, is more modest than its counterpart introduced by the House transportation committee last month, which would extend through Sept. 2022.

Most notably, it does not address the Republican-backed House bill’s call for the creation of a nonprofit corporation to run the U.S. ATC network. House supporters say such a move would speed implementation of the GPS-based NexGen system. The Senate bill instead proposes a series of studies and reporting requirements designed to facilitate more efficient system development. 

But the Senate bill goes well beyond the House proposal on the issue of consumer protection. While both bills include language that would require airlines to refund checked baggage fees when items are lost or delayed, the Senate proposal would also trigger automatic refunds for services purchased but not received, such as early boarding, seat assignments and carry-on bags. 

In addition, the bill would require airlines to notify families traveling with children about the availability of seats together at the time of booking. And it would call on the DOT to review the airline practice of altering an itinerary by more than three hours, or altering an itinerary to include extra stops, if compensation is not offered.  

Notably the bill would create a standard, required method for airlines to display ancillary fees, including baggage fees, cancellation and change fees and seat assignment fees prior to the point of purchase.

That measure differs sharply from the House bill, which would do away with the full-fare advertising rule that requires airlines and other ticket sellers to post the total price, including taxes and fees, in all advertising.

In a statement Wednesday evening, the trade group Airlines for America (A4A) chafed at the Senate bill.

“Regulations proposed in the Senate bill under the cloak of consumer protection have the potential to drive up the cost of air travel for consumers and potentially harm service to small- and medium-sized communities,” the group said.  

But A4A commended the Senate transportation committee on its decision not to propose an increase in the maximum amount that airports can assess in Passenger Facility Charges (PFC) per flight segment. Airports, which use those funds for infrastructure projects, had called for the maximum fee to be increased from $4.50 per segment, which it has been since 2000, to $8.50.

The committee’s exclusion of the proposed increase prompted the U.S. Travel Association to issue a critical statement before the bill was even released.

"There exists a bipartisan recognition that adjusting the PFC cap is long overdue. After all, addressing the issue of airport infrastructure and airline competition are about as meaningful measures as lawmakers could hope to address in FAA renewal,” Jonathan Grella, the association’s vice president for public affairs said.

The Senate transportation committee is scheduled to debate the FAA reauthorization bill on March 16.

FAA funding expires on March 31, before any long-term reauthorization will be passed. The House is expected to introduce a temporary funding measure ahead of the funding expiration. 

Comments
JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI