From compensating travelers to the pilot retirement age, Congress takes up aviation bill

Jul 18, 2023, 1:25 PM

File - People pass through Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Sal...

File - People pass through Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Salt Lake City, after a computer outage at the Federal Aviation Administration disrupted flights. This week, lawmakers will fight over how pilots are trained, how long they can work, and whether travelers will get more compensation for canceled and delayed flights. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

With the frenzied summer travel season in full swing and the aviation system straining to keep up, Congress is expected to vote on legislation that over the next five years will shape the agency responsible for safely managing the nation’s airspace and regulating its airlines.

Lawmakers this week will fight over the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules on everything from how pilots are trained to how long they can work and whether travelers will get more compensation for canceled and delayed flights.

The White House weighed in on Monday, asking House members to keep an Obama-era requirement that advertised airfares must include taxes and mandatory fees, and to add consumer protections proposed by President Joe Biden.

Congress faces a Sept. 30 deadline to act on the legislation. The House is expected to vote this week on a bill that emerged from the transportation committee with bipartisan support. The Senate is behind schedule on its version, which would authorize more than $100 billion in spending — a committee vote was blocked last month by disagreement over pilot training.

Many provisions in the legislation will affect airline consumers, including one that would roll back a Transportation Department regulation from 2011 requiring airlines to show the total price of a ticket upfront in advertising. Airlines could instead provide a link to the all-in price of a ticket.

Consumer advocates oppose the rollback, and the White House took their side Monday, saying full-fare advertising is needed to help consumers do comparison shopping for tickets.

Airlines point out that most businesses that sell products to consumers do not need to include taxes and fees in the upfront price. Critics say the airlines are trying to kill a regulation that has saved consumers time and money.

“Airlines want to rip off Americans with deceptive, confusing tactics to hide the true cost of flights from customers,” said Rep. Chris Deluzio, D-Pa., one of several lawmakers seeking to keep full-fare advertising when the bill moves to the House floor.

The White House also asked Congress to require that airlines compensate passengers when flights are canceled or delayed for reasons within the airline’s control. Under pressure from the administration, most U.S. airlines now say they offer hotel and meal vouchers in those cases.

The Transportation Department wants to go further, and plans to propose regulations to require cash compensation, but that could take years and be challenged in court.

Consumer groups hope that the Senate bill will include more of the provisions they want. They are underwhelmed by the House bill, which emerged as a compromise between Transportation Committee Chairman Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican, and Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat.

The House bill “was a missed opportunity to fix a lot of problems that consumers have expressed with the airline industry going back decades,” said John Breyault, vice president of the National Consumers League. “We think that the Senate bill goes a lot further” on refunds and the Transportation Department’s authority to protect consumers.

There is broad support for provisions in the House bill that give the FAA money to hire more air traffic controllers, improve technology and work on integrating drones and air taxis into the nation’s airspace.

Other issues are more contentious, particularly a change in pilot training standards that passed the House committee by a single vote. It would count more time in simulators toward the number of flight hours needed to qualify for an airline pilot’s license — the “1,500-hour rule.”

Smaller airlines are lobbying for the change, saying it will ease a pilot shortage that is already causing a loss of service to smaller communities. Opponents claim it will undermine safety.

“A vote to reduce the 1,500-hour rule will be blood on your hands when an inevitable accident occurs as a result of an inadequately trained flight crew,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth told colleagues on the Senate floor last month. The Illinois Democrat is a former Army pilot who lost both her legs when her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq.

The House bill would also raise the mandatory retirement age of airline pilots from 65 to 67. Smaller airlines say it is another way to ease the pilot shortage, but pilot unions oppose the change, and the White House called Monday for more research into the subject.

Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines also want Congress to add more long-haul flights at Reagan Washington National Airport. Flights at the airport are generally limited to 1,250 miles –- Dallas, Houston and Minneapolis fall inside that line, but major cities on the West Coast and in the Rockies do not. Delta says the extra service at the close-in airport will drive down fares for visitors to the nation’s capital.

United Airlines, the dominant carrier at less-convenient Dulles Airport, argues that National is already too congested, and more flights will lead to more delays. The FAA agrees, as does American Airlines, the biggest operator at National. The region’s congressional delegation is siding with United, fearing that more flights will increase noise for neighborhoods near National.

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From compensating travelers to the pilot retirement age, Congress takes up aviation bill