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Can Lawmakers Improve the Air Travel Experience?

Strong consumer-protection legislation is making its way through Congress in the wake of a couple of very difficult months for the airline industry.

Few would argue that the experience of connecting groups via screens is better than the in-person meeting experience. However, far fewer would say that the experience of traveling by air to get to that meeting is better than, well, not traveling by air.

Can the federal government do anything about the stress and unpredictability of air travel that is sometimes the unwanted bookends to an otherwise well-organized meeting? U.S. lawmakers are trying. Again.

Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) have reintroduced two pieces of legislation, the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights and the Forbidding Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous (FAIR) Fees Act. Both were introduced in the last Congress but failed to receive a vote. Lawmakers today might see more urgency in the issue: More than 2 million travelers had flights canceled or delayed in recent months due to a mix Southwest Airlines' scheduling problems at the end of December, the accidental outage in the Federal Aviation Administration's Notice to Air Missions pilot-alert system in January, and bad weather.

The Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights aims to protect passengers’ travel experience. Among the highlights is a requirement that airlines provide passengers with fair compensation, refunds, and recourse in the event of airline-caused flight delays and cancellations. This includes the cost of meals and accommodations (when applicable) for flights delayed more than four hours. The legislation would also require airlines to pay at least $1,350 to passengers denied boarding as a result of an oversold flight, mandate that airlines immediately refund baggage fees for damaged or lost bags, and prohibit airlines from shrinking seat size further until the Department of Transportation implements a minimum seat-size requirement. Among other points, the law would also reinstate the right of passengers to sue airlines in federal and state court for unfair and deceptive practices. The full text of the bill is here.

The FAIR Fees Act would prohibit airlines from charging unreasonable fees—including for baggage, seat selection, cancellation, and changing flights—"that are not proportional to the costs of the service actually provided,” according to a release from Sen. Markey (D-Mass.). The full text of the bill is here.

In response to the proposed legislation, Airlines for America, a group representing Delta, United, American, and Southwest airlines commented, according to Rueters, that "instituting government-controlled pricing, establishing a private right of action, and dictating private-sector contracts—would decrease competition and inevitably lead to higher ticket prices and reduced services to small and rural communities."

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