Republican leaders are lauding an aviation policy bill before the Senate as the most passenger friendly in years, but there are limits to friendship.
In an election year that has thus far been defined populist rage, Republicans are walking a fine line as they seek to respond to passengers angered at their treatment by airlines without violating conservative tenets by imposing potentially costly regulations on a major industry.
“I know there are some who think we should go further and re-regulate the airline industry, but we know deregulation has helped make air travel more accessible and more affordable for families and business travelers,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He defended the GOP position in favor of some consumer reforms in the bill but against proposals by Democrats to add more teeth to them.
Public complaints to the Transportation Department about airlines jumped 34 percent last year to the highest level since 2000, even though consumer advocates say many passengers don’t know where to turn when they think they’ve been treated unfairly.
Among the adopted pro-consumer provisions, part of a larger aviation bill to extend the Federal Aviation Administration’s programs and powers, are these:
- Standardizing how airlines disclose fees for basic services like checked bags, ticket changes or cancellations, and seat assignments so that consumers can more easily compare both fare and fee prices as they shop for tickets.
- Requiring that airlines refund fees for checked bags that are delivered more than six hours after a domestic flight has landed, and more than 12 hours after an international flight.
- Requiring airlines to refund any fees for services not delivered, such as advance seat assignments that turn out to be unavailable or early boarding that isn’t provided.
- Making airlines inform passengers traveling with children at the time of ticketing if they are unable to seat them together.
The provisions were included at the behest of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, in negotiations with the chairman, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.
Thune has repeatedly touted the consumer provisions as a reason for senators to support the bill. In a video shot at Washington Reagan National Airport to promote the bill, he calls the measure “one of the most passenger-friendly aviation bills in a generation.”
But when Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., tried to go a step further by proposing to prohibit airlines from setting unreasonable fees and to direct the Transportation Department to establish what is reasonable, his amendment was defeated in committee last month on a party-line tie vote.
And last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tried to prohibit airlines from further shrinking the size of seats and to direct the FAA to determine a minimum seat size. The Senate defeated his amendment with all but three Democrats voting in favor and all but one Republican voting against.
At least one Republican had second thoughts. The day after the vote, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona tweeted a photo of himself jammed into an airline seat, laptop on his lap. On the screen: a news website with the headline, “The Senate just voted against airplane legroom standards.”
“OK, so perhaps my vote against this bill was a tad impetuous,” tweeted the 6-foot-1 Flake.
Okay, so perhaps my vote against this bill was a tad impetuous… pic.twitter.com/wsXy0H4ZJF
— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) April 8, 2016