2018 FAA bill not as far reaching as it seems on the surface


Southwest Airlines plane landing at Philadelphia International Airport, Copyright © 2015 NSL Photography. All Rights Reserved.Last Friday, President Trump signed the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 into law. For the first time in years, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is funded for a five-year span.

The new law allocates $36 billion to fund the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). NextGen will modernize U.S. air travel with improved navigation, communication, information, integration and airport systems. NextGen improvements are essential to ensure a high performance level and a safe future of U.S. air travel.

Many air travel advocates are hailing the new law. My assessment is more tempered. The new FAA bill is not traveler-friendly. Some consumer leaders are applauding Congress, but there is much more that Congress could have done. Here are my highlights of the new law.

Involuntary bumping of seated passengers:
Do you remember the United Airlines Express fiasco when security personnel bloodied, then dragged 69-year-old Dr. David Dao off the plane to allow an airline employee to fly in his place? Under the new law, passengers who are already seated on their flight can’t be involuntarily bumped by airlines. While that’s excellent, the airlines already implemented it as policy. They didn’t want to see new viral videos making them look like a bunch of out-of-control ogres.

No animals in the overhead bins:
In response to the dead dog in a United flight earlier this year, the law makes it “unlawful for any person to place a live animal” in an overhead bin. Just as with bumping passengers already seated, the airlines had already made this policy.

e-Cigarettes and mobile phone calls:
The use of e-cigarettes in commercial aircraft and making mobile phone calls while on a commercial flight was already prohibited by FAA regulation. Now it’s law.

Download Airplane Carry-on ChecklistFAA required to set minimum seat specifications:
As Americans have gotten larger, many commercial airline seats have gotten smaller and the space between rows (seat pitch) has been shrinking. In order to cram as many seats as possible into American Airlines’ Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, the seat width in Economy can be as small as 16.6 inches (42 cm), and the seat pitch just 30 inches (76 cm).

The new law requires that the FAA set minimum seat pitch, width, and length standards that are “necessary for the safety and health of passengers.” I’m highly skeptical that the FAA will require the airlines to throw out their current seat configurations, particularly seat width and length. I also doubt they will require more than a 30-inch seat pitch, but if they do, don’t be surprised if the airlines raise the cost of flying economy because they’d have to take out a row or two of seats.

Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights:
The new law requires the FAA to seriously consider the needs of disabled passengers and includes the creation of an “Airline Passengers With Disabilities Bill of Rights.” Congress has tasked the FAA, under the law, among other items, to identify disabled passengers’ “access barriers” and how they can be addressed.

One access barrier that the FAA needs to review immediately is the ever shrinking lavatory. In the new American Airlines’ 737 MAX, the lavatories are only 24.5 inches (62 cm) wide, barely more than two feet. That’s ten inches (25 cm) narrower than American’s older 737 lavatories. The smaller lavatories were created to permit American to add twelve more seats into the plane.

Passengers complain that you can’t turn around in the new lavatory and that the sink is so small you can’t wash both hands together, which is essential for good hygiene. With able bodied passengers having such problems, it’s not difficult to infer that the lavatories are virtually impossible to use for many disabled passengers.

Weather related flight delays and cancellations:
The FAA is to determine if “it is an unfair or deceptive practice for an air carrier to inform a passenger that a flight is delayed or canceled due to weather alone when other factors are involved.” I can answer that. Delays and cancellations due to weather don’t require passenger compensation, but if due to mechanical problems and some other causes, compensation is required. Even if weather posed a problem, if other compensable problems were involved, hiding that fact would be unfair and deceptive.

Refunds:
The law requires the Department of Transportation (DOT) to enact regulations that require airlines to provide prompt refunds of ancillary fees for services passengers don’t receive. I assume this would include baggage fees for bags that don’t arrive on time, Internet fees for connections that don’t work properly, seat upgrades that passengers don’t get, etc.

Aviation Consumer Advocate:
The law requires the creation of an Aviation Consumer Advocate to “assist consumers” in resolving complaints against the airlines. That’s great, but it’s unknown if the advocate will be adequately funded and how effective they can and will be permitted to be.

There are other good provisions of the Act, designed to protect air travelers and look toward future aviation. There are also critical missing pieces that should have been in this law, but were omitted. While giving more rest time for flight attendants in the law, the inconsistent rules to prevent pilot fatigue weren’t addressed. A provision to ensure ancillary fees are reasonable was removed from the bill.

This bill is a reasoned start, but it’s only a start.

(Image: Southwest Airlines plane landing at Philadelphia International Airport, Copyright © 2015 NSL Photography. All Rights Reserved.)