House, Senate FAA Bills Call for New Passenger Rights

By Shaun Courtney

The flying public could have greater protections from being bumped from a flight after boarding and could receive higher compensation if involuntarily bumped under the provisions of the FAA reauthorization bills introduced in the Senate and House June 22.

Both the Senate and House committees responsible for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officially introduced bills June 22 with bi-partisan co-sponsors. The House bill—the 21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act—would reauthorize federal aviation programs for six years while the Senate bill—S. 1405, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2017 would reauthorize the programs for four years.

They key difference between the two bills, however, is a provision in the House bill that would remove the air traffic control function from the FAA and put it under private board control.

“Our legislation focuses on enhancing safety, improving air travel for the traveling public, and reforms to help bring the future of aviation closer to reality,” Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said in a statement. “To address eroding rural access to our air transportation system and delays created by congestion around our most populated corridors, our proposal seeks out new solutions benefiting all Americans who use or depend on air transportation.”

Passenger Rights

The House and Senate bills would provide new protections for passenger rights, including language intended to prevent and remedy situations such as one that saw a ticketed passenger on a United Flight forcibly removed from his seat and his flight in April.

“With this bill, we’re putting the flying public first and insisting they receive better treatment from the airlines,” Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said in a statement about his chamber’s bill.

The Senate FAA draft language reflects protections similar to those proposed in the Transparency, Improvements, and Compensation to Keep Every Ticketholder Safe (TICKETS) Act, introduced in April by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).

Both the Senate and House bills would offer exceptions for passengers who are deemed a risk to safety, security, or health, or who are behaving in a disruptive or unlawful manner.

Another common element of the bills is language that would clarify existing rules dictating how much passengers can be reimbursed if they are denied boarding.

Travelers United Chairman Charlie Leocha said he was pleased to see that both chambers came up with a system to prevent passengers from being bumped from a seat once they had boarded a flight. But, he said, he wishes the compensation cap elimination had more teeth to it, rather than leaving rule updates to the Department of Transportation.

Overall, Leocha said both bills are “a bit of a disappointment” from a consumer protection stance.

Leocha takes greater issue with the House bill because it includes language that reintroduces the “Transparent Airfares Act,” which would once again allow airlines to list the base price of a ticket not inclusive of taxes and fees.

“That is a giant, giant problem,” said Leocha, who has been fighting the provision from 2012.

The Senate version does not include any such language.

Who Controls Air Traffic?

The core of the differences between the two bills is whether air traffic control should remain within the FAA or be spun off to a new board made up of representatives of airlines, airports, unions, and other relevant actors.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster’s (R-Pa.) stated goal with the air traffic shakeup is to free the air traffic control service from the procurement and budgetary constraints of the federal government to allow for faster adoption of new technologies and a more efficient use of budget resources.

Shuster was able to introduce his legislation with two Democratic co-sponsors, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). Both of the Democratic co-sponsors do not serve on the committee where the bill will have its first vote.

Shuster’s Democratic colleagues on the committee, including Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), have been vocally opposed to the proposal.

“The legislation does nothing to address the major concerns raised by a bipartisan group of opponents about whether air traffic control privatization would guarantee safety, protect national security, expedite new technology, and keep our aviation system solvent,” DeFazio said in a statement.

Republicans have misgivings as well. At a June 15 committee hearing, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Chair of the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, told Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao that he is opposed to removing air traffic control from the FAA.

General Aviation

Commercial air carriers, such as American Airlines Group Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co., back Shuster’s proposal, while general and business aviation advocacy groups remain opposed. Shuster had hoped to win over the general aviation groups by exempting them from user-fee requirements in the new air traffic control system. Even so, general aviation groups issued a joint statement June 21 rejecting the House version of the draft bill.

Support grew in the House, however. House General Aviation Caucus Co-Chairman Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) signed on as a co-sponsor for this latest iteration. He had opposed Shuster’s similar 2016 proposal.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Organization—the largest general aviation association—issued a statement June 22 backing the Senate version.

“AOPA supports the Senate FAA Reauthorization legislation which will allow the U.S. air traffic control system to continue to be the safest and most efficient in the world, preserves the public benefit that access to aviation brings to rural communities, gives local airports more flexibility to build and repair infrastructure, provides pilots more common sense protections and further facilitates the important role general aviation plays in emergencies,” AOPA CEO Mark Baker said in a statement.

In the Senate, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a certified pilot, praised the Senate bill for the protections it affords general aviation.

“I am proud of the strong GA provisions I have worked to include in FAA reauthorization, including the Fairness for Pilots Act, which broadens protections for GA pilots and builds on my Pilot’s Bill of Rights legislation from previous Congresses, and the FLIGHT Act, which incentivizes investment in GA airports,” Inhofe said in a statement.

What’s on the Horizon

Both the Senate and House will markup their respective bills the week of June 26.

The FAA’s current funding runs out Sept. 30.

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