Internet Travel Monitor - Travel Industry News

May 2, 2018

House FAA Bill Would Regulate Airline Seat Size, Ban Voice Calls

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The House approved Federal Aviation Administration legislation Friday chock full of consumer provisions such as setting minimum standards for the size of airline seats, more information during flight disruptions and a ban on voice calls.

The House voted 393-13 to approve the five-year bill from bipartisan leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The bill would:

  • Order the FAA within a year to develop regulations on minimum standards for seating, including the distance between rows and the width of seats. The minimums weren't defined in the bill. But consumer groups have protested as the distance between rows --"seat pitch," industry vernacular -- dropped from 35 inches before deregulation to about 31 inches today, and the width narrowed from 18 inches to 16.5 inches.

  • Prohibit voice calls during flights. The Federal Communications Commission prohibits cellphone calls during flights. But with the advent of Wi-Fi services such as Skype, the bill would ban any wireless calls, while exempting the flight crew or law enforcement officers.

  • Ban airlines from bumping passengers who have boarded full planes. A passenger was dragged off a full United Airlines flight a year ago to make room for crew members.

  • Force airlines, when their computer systems suffer widespread disruptions, to post prominent messages on their websites explaining how travelers will be affected.

  • Require airlines to publish one-page summaries of compensation when a flight is diverted, such as rebooking options, refunds, meals and lodging.

  • Create a Transportation Department hotline and smartphone app for travelers to report complaints.

  • Order the installation of secondary barriers on new airliners starting in one year, to block access to the cockpit during flights. Cockpit doors were hardened after the terror attacks Sept. 11, 2001, but pilots and security experts have urged folding metal gates be added for when pilots occasionally leave the flight deck.

"The bill is critical to our economy, to millions of Americans who work in aviation, and to hundreds of millions of Americans who use the system every year," said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa. and panel chairman. "It strengthens protections for passengers."

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., who had sponsored separate legislation to regulate the size of seating, called the House vote "a huge win for airline passengers."

“Airlines should never be allowed to put profits ahead of safety and health," Cohen said. "Passengers need to be able to evacuate quickly and safely in the event of an emergency, and the FAA needs to make sure they can.”

The Senate must still consider its own version and reconcile it with the House over the coming months.

Congress must take some action because current FAA legislation, including the authority to collect taxes and fees, expires Sept. 30. The latest House version would run until 2023.

“For families, this will make air traffic and air travel safer and easier. For workers, it's going to make the airline industry more competitive, which means more jobs,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “I'll spare you the puns about how this bill is ready for takeoff, but it's a good piece of legislation that's going to make people's lives better, and we look forward to getting this done.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on the transportation committee, highlighted safety provisions in the bill such as requiring 10 hours of rest between shifts for flight attendants.

“Flight attendants are critical safety personnel on the plane,” he said. “They cannot be fatigued, just like a pilot cannot be fatigued.”

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, said the provision closes a loophole after setting rest standards for pilots.

"AFA made 10 hours minimum rest free from duty — equal with the flight deck — our top safety priority in this bill," she said.

The bill also asks the department’s inspector general to study FAA evacuation standards. Passengers are supposed to evacuate planes within 90 seconds, but studies are conducted by computer simulation rather than with people actually navigating the narrower seating, DeFazio said.

“As they jam more and more and more seats into these planes, we’ve reached a point where we can no longer meet the standard,” he said. “It’s critical that we be able to get people off as quickly as possible.”

The biggest change from last year’s version is that Shuster dropped his proposal for moving the air-traffic control system from FAA to a nonprofit corporation. He won committee approval, but won't pursue the plan this year for lack of support in the full House.

A contentious provision in the bill would allow airlines to resume advertising fares without taxes, so long as an online link or popup box led to an explanation of taxes that would be added to the price.

The provision would effectively repeal a Transportation Department rule that began in January 2012 requiring airlines to include taxes in the advertised fares the first time the price is mentioned. Taxes add about 20% to the average ticket price, according to the trade group Airlines for America.

Consumer groups welcomed the advertising requirement, to prevent bait-and-switch advertising with prices that don’t include taxes.

But airlines argued it was unfair to single out their industry and to force carriers to include taxes with fares.

Another contentious proposal wasn't included. Airports have sought a higher cap on travel fees, called a Passenger Facility Charge, for terminal construction. But airlines contend that airports have enough funding to build, but that raising the $4.50 fee per ticket would discourage travel.

Nicholas Calio, CEO of the trade group Airlines for America, which represents most of the largest carriers, praised the House for providing long-term policy for 2.3 million daily travelers.

"As the legislative process moves forward, we urge senators to adopt a long-term bill that continues to hold the line against unneeded tax hikes, while also protecting our customers from ill-advised calls to regulate pricing and services across the industry," Calio said.


Copyright 2018 Gannett. All rights reserved. From https://www.usatoday.com.
By Bart Jansen, USA TODAY.
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