September 27, 2018—Congressional leaders on the Senate and House transportation committees announced this weekend that they had reached a compromise on a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The latest version of the bill, which has been the subject of heated debate in Congress throughout the summer, must be passed by both chambers before the end of the month in order for the FAA to continue normal operations.
Although consumer advocacy organizations fought for legislation that would place limits on ancillary fees charged by airlines, the compromise FAA authorization bill that emerged over the weekend dropped those protections and instead includes a more limited number of perks for air travelers. These include new language that would prohibit airlines from involuntarily bumping passengers that have already boarded a flight, a requirement that the FAA set minimum standards for legroom and seat width, and the creation of an aviation consumer advocate position at the Department of Transportation to help passengers resolve complaints.
The proposal to impose limits on fees that airlines are allowed to charge was fiercely opposed by the major airlines and their Washington lobby, Airlines for America. In a statement released on Saturday, President and CEO of the trade group Nicholas Calio applauded the bipartisan efforts to move forward with the compromise legislation.
“The long-term reauthorization is essential for the FAA to advance projects and implement programs that advance our country's status as the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world,” the statement reads. “This measure will provide long-term certainty for the millions of passengers and countless businesses that rely on access to safe, affordable travel and shipping options every day.”
Consumer advocates, meanwhile, voiced their disappointment in the last-minute revisions. Over the past months, groups such as Consumers Union and the National Consumers League have advocated for a range of proposals to limit add-on fees and disclose airline-imposed charges in published airfares.
In recent years, U.S. airlines have focused on generating additional revenue through fees for services that—in previous decades—were bundled into the cost of a ticket. As the list of fees expanded to include checked bags, seat assignments, early boarding, and in-flight dining, passengers simultaneously contended with smaller seats and reduced legroom throughout economy cabins. The addition of extra rows of seats has reduced the distance between seats to 31 inches or less, in many cases.
Airlines are quick to point out that under the current system, base airfares are at historic lows adjusted for inflation and consumers have more options than ever to select “add-ons” they value most. However, an onslaught of highly-publicized customer service incidents, such as the viral video of a passenger being dragged off a United Airlines jet, and the sense that fees are ever-expanding while personal space is constantly diminished has led to substantial public backlash against the industry.
In addition to consumer-focused provisions that have gained considerable attention, the FAA reauthorization bill also addresses aviation safety and certification issues. For example, the bill includes stricter rest and duty rules for flight attendants and requires the FAA to review cabin evacuation assumptions to ensure that everyone can safely evacuate an airliner in an emergency within the required timeframe. It also makes changes to how aircraft and parts are certified for safety by streamlining the process and enabling manufacturers to fully utilize their delegated certification authorities.
The legislation also includes provisions that are designed to promote the safe and efficient integration of unmanned aircraft systems and drones into the U.S. aviation system. These provisions direct the FAA to update existing regulations to authorize the carriage of property by operators of small drones, authorize DOT to update existing regulations for drone package delivery, and foster the development of low-altitude traffic management systems and sense-and-avoid technologies.
Under current law, the funding for the FAA is set to expire of September 30, 2018. If the compromise legislation is passed this week, as leaders in both parties anticipate, then a partial shutdown of the FAA would be avoided and the agency would be authorized for another five-year period.
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