FAA Bill Leaves Out Change Fee Oversight

WSJ
Travelers walk toward the baggage drop area for Delta airlines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. A version of an FAA bill released Saturday doesn’t include a provision that would have given the Transportation Department oversight of the fees airlines charge passengers to change their reservations.
Travelers walk toward the baggage drop area for Delta airlines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. A version of an FAA bill released Saturday doesn’t include a provision that would have given the Transportation Department oversight of the fees airlines charge passengers to change their reservations. Photo: Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Congressional lawmakers have left a proposal to regulate airline “change fees” out of a bill authorizing the Federal Aviation Administration’s operations.

A version of the FAA bill released on Saturday doesn’t include a provision that would have given the Department of Transportation oversight of the fees airlines charge passengers to change their reservations, according to a summary of the legislation and to spokesmen for the House and Senate transportation committees.

An earlier draft version of the bill approved by a Senate committee had included the change-fee provision.

The latest version of the bill was negotiated by House and Senate lawmakers who aim to hold a vote in both chambers ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline to reauthorize the FAA’s operating authority.

Excluding the change-fee provision is a victory for U.S. airlines and their trade group, Airlines for America. U.S. airlines took in nearly $3 billion from change and cancellation fees last year, federal data show. They pushed hard for Congress not to regulate that revenue stream, arguing it would upend their business model.

The bill does include a provision directing the FAA to set minimums for leg room and the width and length of commercial airline seats.

The airline group said the FAA bill “will provide long-term certainty for the millions of passengers and countless businesses that rely on access to safe, affordable travel and shipping options every day.”

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D., Mass.), who had pushed for the change-fee provision, blamed airlines for its defeat. “Congress had the opportunity to return fairness to change and cancellation fees,” he said in a statement. “Instead, through an opaque negotiating process, the airlines have managed to kill this important consumer protection provision. No one should have to pay a $200 change fee on a ticket that costs nearly that much.”

The compromise legislation, which could reach the House floor as early as next week, also includes several provisions pushed by industry groups related to expanding uses of commercial drones and promoting a return of civil supersonic aircraft to the U.S.

Prodded by advocates of such planes, lawmakers called on the FAA to develop criteria authorizing certification of future models producing reduced sonic booms. To start with, prospective manufactures want the agency to establish noise standards during takeoffs and landings at conventional speeds. But eventually, companies and industry groups will seek approval for civilian supersonic flights over the U.S. that are now prohibited.

In addition, the legislation endorses accelerated and expanded operations of unmanned aircraft, flown for both commercial and governmental purposes. House and Senate members agreed, among other things, that the FAA should rely on consensus industry standards when approving certain drone designs. The bill also envisions that within a year, FAA leaders will spell out plans to broaden existing rules to accommodate regular flights of package-delivery drones. The agency has repeatedly missed similar legislative deadlines over the years, largely due to technical and legal challenges. FAA efforts to allow more widespread drone flights also continue to be impeded by security and law-enforcement concerns over hazards posed by rogue operators or terrorists. Until those issues are resolved, the FAA will remain stymied in implementing many of the goals highlighted in the bill.

However, in a big win for Amazon.com Inc. and many other companies pushing to deliver packages to consumers using relatively small, highly automated unmanned aerial systems, the bill specifically calls for consideration of drones weighing more than 55 pounds including cargo.

By late 2019, the FAA also will be required to provide congress a plan for implementing an air-traffic control network focused on drone operations. And lawmakers want reports from industry and government experts laying out finding proposals for regulating the fast-growing commercial drone industry.

In another closely watched portion of the bill, for the first time in more than two decades the legislation mandates longer rest periods for flight attendants between duty days.

Write to Andrew Tangel at Andrew.Tangel@wsj.com and Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

https://www.wsj.com/articles/faa-bill-leaves-out-change-fee-oversight-1537633640?mod=pls_whats_news_us_business_f

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