Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Congress Considers Bag Fee Refunds and Cell Phone Bans for Airlines

A bill to privatize U.S. air traffic control contains some small items for consumers.

A big fight looming in Washington concerns whether U.S. air traffic control should be transferred from the Federal Aviation Administration to a not-for-profit corporation. Apart from the headline-grabbing changes, the two Republicans who wrote the bill also stuck a few items further down in the 273-page document (PDF) that consumers may like—and airlines may not. Here are some of the issues up for debate: 

Refunds for bag fees if bags go missing 

The proposal in section 507 of the bill would require airlines to refund a checked-bag fee if a bag and its owner aren’t reunited within 24 hours of a flight’s arrival. Most U.S. carriers that assess a bag fee require customers to petition for refunds in such situations; Alaska Air Group says it reimburses the fee.

These bag fees have become a critical revenue source for U.S. airlines, which collected $2.8 billion through the first nine months of 2015, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The three largest airlines accounted for about $2 billion of that total, led by Delta’s $661.3 million.

Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for Airlines for America, the U.S. airlines’ trade group, said U.S. carriers correctly handled more than 99.68 percent of bags per every 1,000 passengers in 2015 and already have “extensive policies and protocols in place without additional regulation” to ensure that luggage is routed correctly. 

Delta Air Lines, for example, offers customers a $25 or $50 voucher to use on future travel if a bag is delayed more than 12 hours. United offers a bag fee refund if you decline to fly due to a flight cancellation or schedule change.

A warning for parents they might not sit with their child

The item in section 501 would require airlines to notify customers before a ticket purchase that they might not be able to sit next to their children age 13 and younger. The rule would potentially target the kind of seat swapping flight attendants are often forced to oversee when a parent is assigned a seat far away from their child. The rule also could affect seat assignment fees many airlines charge when passengers choose an aisle or window, and whether customers should have to pay a fee when there are no free seats left. Skip the seat selection fee and the airline will typically assign a seat when you check in before a flight.

“Airlines have always worked to accommodate customers who are traveling together, including those traveling with children, and will continue to do so—without unnecessary federal mandates,” Jennings said.

It is odd for Congress to involve itself in a matter such as seat assignments, said Jay Sorensen, a former executive with Midwest Airlines and president of IdeaWorks, a consulting firm. “When a person buys a ticket and they don’t want to pay the seat assignment fee, there should be an inherent knowledge that they might not be seated next to their kid,” he said, likening the proposal to making a hotel disclose to travelers the presence of a swimming pool that could drown a child. “I don’t see how this rises to the level of federal legislation.”

Lactation rooms at airports

The bill would ensure all airports have lactation rooms for mothers to express their milk. The measure comes after Representative Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) introduced a bill in May, the Friendly Airports for Mothers Act, to require airports to provide lactating mothers a place—and not a restroom—to feed their children.

“We would never ask our fellow travelers to eat their meals in bathroom stalls, yet we ask new mothers to feed their children while sitting on a toilet seat,” Duckworth wrote in an opinion piece last year for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Cell phone calls banned on flights

This item would be good news for many travelers, and past polls have shown broad support for it. If enacted, the measure would codify into law the current Department of Transportation practice prohibiting telephone calls during flight. Flight attendants, for one, have said that mobile phones constitute a new danger during flight, including the potential for arguments with chatty passengers escalating to violence.

It’s worth noting that none of these mandates would cost airlines much financially, even though they will likely lead to fierce lobbying.

A review and markup of the bill is expected on Wednesday, when the transportation committee could send the bill to the full House. The FAA’s current legislative authority ends on March 31. The bill, introduced by Representatives Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), would authorize the FAA through September 2022. The bill is H.R. 4441. 

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