Flying is a headache for many Americans — and it could soon get worse.
Consumer advocates warn that the Trump administration is poised to repeal regulations that protect travelers, potentially making flying more costly and more dangerous, said Paul Hudson, passenger organization FlyersRights.org president and member of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee.
“Airlines today seek nothing short of total deregulation plus competition protection to achieve the same status as railroads had in the late 19th Century,” Hudson said.
Dozens of regulations are potentially on the chopping block after Department of Transportation undersecretary for policy Derek Kan said earlier this month at a lunch in Washington, D.C. the Trump administration’s primary goal was “to remove onerous regulatory burdens.” He said the government takes a “rigorous systematic” approach to reviewing transportation regulations. Airlines for America, a trade group representing major U.S. airlines, has submitted recommendations to the Department of Transportation on which laws it wants changed, but a spokeswoman did not reply to questions about exactly which regulations the group is targeting.
Airlines favor modifying tarmac-delay rule
Laws that are being debated include how long passengers can be held in a plane on the tarmac. Currently, flights landing at U.S. airports are required to provide passengers with an opportunity to safely get off of the airplane before they are stuck on the tarmac for 3 hours for domestic flights and 4 hours for international flights, according to the department’s website.
“During a tarmac delay, airlines must provide you with a snack, such as a granola bar, and drinking water no later than two hours after the aircraft leaves the gate,” the website said. (The Department of Transportation did not respond to request for comment).
Airlines for America favors modifying the tarmac-delay rule so that the time period for measuring a delay starts when a pilot requests to return to the gate, not when it actually arrives at the gate. It also supports making exceptions if a pilot determines there is a security concern that makes deplaning unsafe. Consumer advocates have opposed the change, saying it could mean travelers getting stuck on the runway for longer.
“It’s shameful,” consumer travel advocate Christopher Elliott said of the proposed change. “There’s no reason for them to undo this rule that protects passengers. It’s a troubling turn of events.”
Customers are faced with even more ticket classes
The potential for rule changes comes as more airlines “unbundle” their tickets, making customers pay for different tiers of tickets to get amenities that previously came free. Many airlines have stopped allowing passengers to check a bag for free or change flights without fees. Airlines collected $7.1 billion in fees in 2016 for such charges.
FlyersRights.org argues that seats would continue to shrink without regulation and fees could “mushroom without restriction or disclosure.”
Last year, the Department of Transportation said it would not implement an Obama-era proposal that required airlines and ticket agencies to disclose baggage fees at the outset of purchasing a ticket, The Hill reported.
‘The incredible shrinking airline seat’
In August 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to address “the case of the incredible shrinking airline seat.” FlyersRights.org said repealing consumer protections could exacerbate this problem.
Last year, American Airlines AAL, +0.37% announced a new jet with two inches less of legroom with a seat pitch of 29 inches, but reevaluated to put it at 30 inches — the smallest of a major carrier but still larger than the smallest seat for budget airline Spirit SAVE, +0.09% or Frontier FRNT, +0.00% which is at 28 inches.
Other potential changes FlyersRights.org cited as concerns included allowing more bumping from flights and price gouging. A recent investigation by the Civil Aviation Authority in the U.K. found airlines often separate families purposely to require them to pay extra to sit together on flights, and flyers rights organization AirHelp said these issues are common in the U.S.
Families with minor children want to fly together
In 2016, Congress passed a law, the Families Flying Together Act, designed to ensure children under the age of 13 will be seated with parents or guardians on flights, but regulations resulting from the law have yet to be drafted by the FAA. (The FAA did not respond to request for comment.)
Spokeswoman Alison McAfee of Airlines for America said companies are “striving for a better industry for everyone,” which includes advocating for “more effective, efficient and modern regulation.” Many airline regulations have not been reviewed since deregulation in 1969, meaning unnecessary laws like requiring ash trays in bathrooms of planes persist, she said.
With such rules clarified, airlines could spend less on obsolete rules and pass savings on to consumers, she added. “In today’s world, fliers are at the controls,” she said. “They have the right to choose which airline they prefer to give their business to, which route best serves their needs, and which variety of service options they value most.”