Will air travelers get more protections? 2 US senators push passengers bill of rights

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In a second attempt, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts are back with a comprehensive bill package to provide a bill of rights for air travelers and address airline fees.

This year’s iteration, the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, is similar to the previous legislation, according to a spokesperson for Blumenthal. It also includes the Forbidding Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous Fees Act, which would bar airlines from charging exorbitant fees for services like checked baggage, seat selection and ticket changes.

The senior senator from Connecticut first introduced his original bill, S.3222, the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, in the 117th Congress to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which failed to take up the bill in the 2021-2022 legislative session.

The Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights attempts to expand protections for U.S. air travelers, stemming from Southwest’s operational holiday meltdown, when the airline — known for friendly customer service, unconventional boarding and low prices — canceled nearly 3,000 flights per day to close out 2022.

Blumenthal said Southwest’s holiday woes were “just one example of what happens every day to many consumers across the country because they have no bill of rights right now.” 

When asked why the two senators chose to reintroduce expanded legislation in the 118th Congress, Blumenthal again pointed to Southwest’s issues.

“The Southwest meltdown provides a clear impetus for it, and the wounds are still really palpable and real,” he continued. “The Southwest meltdown is still the poster child for what has to be done.”

Southwest credited this operational failure to an outdated crew-scheduling system and its unique network strategy of sending planes and crews crisscrossing around the country without necessarily returning to an operating base.

However, pandemic-induced staffing issues consistently contributed to flight delays, cancellations and lost baggage across all airlines in 2022, further prompting Congress to act.

“Let’s be honest, air travel in 2022 was a total disaster,” Markey said.

Together, the two senators hope to hold airlines accountable by requiring them to award affected passengers monetary compensation for delayed and/or canceled flights.

Specifically, the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights and FAIR Fees Act would require airlines to:

  • Issue refunds and alternate transportation for flights delayed between one and four hours.
  • Issue refunds, alternate transportation and compensation for additional costs incurred, including meals and lodging, for delays exceeding four hours.
  • Issue a minimum of $1,350 for passengers denied boarding due to an oversold flight (domestic and international carriers).
  • Reimburse an unspecified amount for canceled flights.
  • Immediately refund bag fees for damaged or lost bags.

A spokesperson for Blumenthal declined to comment on how much flyers could receive for canceled flights via this legislation.

Among other provisions, the bill would also eliminate the current cap on compensation airlines can provide to passengers who give up their seats, as well as eliminate the current Department of Transportation cap on fines it charges airlines for violating consumer protection laws.

Southwest’s independent operating model, which does not include membership in an airline alliance, does not allow it to rebook affected passengers on other airlines.

Blumenthal also mentioned that the legislation would allow customers to bring on individual or class-action lawsuits against airlines in the event of any meltdown or malpractice while prohibiting the use of arbitration for such cases.

Arbitration has come under scrutiny as the favored legal avenue for many corporations partly because it sends disputes out of court and typically only allows consumers to bring claims individually against a company, making it difficult for consumers to seek adequate recourse.

The legislation would require “relationships between Southwest and other airlines to put you on alternative flights without the price gouging fees,” according to Blumenthal.

Beyond addressing monetary compensation, it also would prohibit airlines from shrinking seat size further until the DOT implements a minimum seat size requirement.

Moving forward, the authors said the bills could be offered as part of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization — the agency’s five-year funding package which is required to be enacted by Sept. 30 — or as stand-alone bills.

“My Republican colleagues may not want to lead, but I think it would be hard to vote against,” Blumenthal said.

Additional reporting by Meghna Maharishi.