Is it too late for the U.S. government to improve air travel?
New proposals promise to "lighten the burden" on air passengers. What do they mean for you?
As if on cue, the government released three new proposals this week to improve air travel.
Interesting timing. We're at the peak of the busiest — and most infuriating — summer for air travel in years.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who sponsored one of the proposals, said the government needs to help "lighten the burden" air travel has become since the start of the pandemic.
Two of the ideas would make getting refunds or flight credits easier. The other promises to upgrade the safety, and maybe the comfort, of airline seats. But is it too late for the government to improve air travel?
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How is the government trying to improve air travel?
The U.S. government made several announcements this week that could help passengers like you.
New rule will offer more refunds
The Department of Transportation announced a new rule that would tighten the definition of a canceled flight and require an airline to provide refunds if your departure or arrival time changes by at least three hours for a domestic flight or at least six hours for an international flight.
Airline ticket credits issued for specific reasons — including government-mandated bans on travel, closed borders, or passengers advised not to travel to protect their health or the health of other passengers — would be valid "indefinitely."
"This new proposed rule would protect the rights of travelers and help ensure they get the timely refunds they deserve from the airlines," U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a prepared statement.
Congress introduces cash refunds act
Not to be outdone, Congress also proposed a new law that would offer passengers an enforceable right to a full cash refund for flight and ticket cancellations. The bill codifies a regulation requiring major airlines to provide consumers with a cash refund if the airline cancels or significantly delays a flight. But it also goes a step further, providing consumers a new right to a cash refund if they cancel their ticket up to 48 hours before the flight's scheduled departure.
"Enough is enough," said Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), one of the bill's sponsors. "Travelers are sick of wasting their valuable time fighting the airlines to receive their legally required cash refunds."
Bigger airline seats at last?
Finally, the FAA got into the act when it signaled that it would mandate a minimum airline seat size. This week, the agency asked for public comments to help determine what minimum dimensions of passenger seats may be necessary for safety, especially airplane evacuations.
Back in 2018, Congress ordered the FAA to set standards for the size of airline seats. The agency had one year to develop minimum requirements for seat width and the space between seats. But it missed the deadline.
Wow, three proposals in a week. I'm sure the timing was just a coincidence.
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Will these proposals fly?
So will we see any of these proposals take off? Maybe.
Already, Southwest Airlines has eliminated expiration dates on its flight credits, as I noted in my article on flight credits. It did that late last week, just days before the DOT made its announcement. That tells me one of the major carriers believes it's a question of when, not if, the government will order airlines to make their flight credits last indefinitely.
The DOT rulemaking may get watered down in its final version. But I'm confident the government will create a definition of a "significant" delay for the purposes of a refund or flight credit. It should have done that a long time ago.
And what about the seats? Oh, the seats.
The FAA doesn't seem to think small economy class seats are a problem. Of course not. There's a revolving door between the FAA and airlines. So many of the officials making decisions about seat size started their careers at a commercial airline. And nothing makes them happier than seeing 200 seats squished into a 737 Max.
It'll probably be another four years before the FAA makes a ruling. When it does, don't be surprised if it sets the minimum seat size smaller than the average size today. Why? Maybe it's that revolving door.
Ironically, the seat size proposal was the most important one to readers.
What does it mean for you?
This week's grandstanding means absolutely nothing to you, at least in the near term. Airlines will continue to rake in profits. The legacy carriers just reported a combined $2.8 billion in quarterly earnings, up 10 percent from the same period in 2019. Complaints filed to the Department of Transportation soar as airlines cancel and delay flights — and keep customers' money.
The proposals will not improve air travel now or anytime soon. These are empty words.
You have to take matters into your own hands and find ways to improve air travel now.
Tell the government how you feel
You can leave a comment on the FAA's seat proposal, which will let regulators know that this issue means a lot to you. You can complain to the DOT when an airline keeps your money. And ultimately, if you're a U.S. citizen, you can vote for candidates who want to carefully regulate the airline industry while preserving competition.
Fly with an airline that gets it
Don't give your business to an airline that wedges you onto its planes like a sardine and expires your flight credits in 15 minutes. Southwest Airlines has already eliminated expirations on its ticket credits. Now it needs to space its seats a little farther apart. It currently has them about 31 to 32 inches apart, but at 34 inches, almost everyone would be happy.
Avoid air travel
The only way to avoid the pain and misery of air travel is to avoid air travel. This isn't the summer to be flying, for reasons we've already discussed in this newsletter. Why would you subject yourself to the torture of air travel during the peak of travel season? At the very least, wait to fly until early fall — if not until some of these new regulations go into effect.
Oh, who are we kidding?
Even if all of these government proposals go through, I know what will happen. The airline industry will figure out a way of making up for the lost revenue. It will invent new fees to make up for the ticket revenue it used to legally keep after your credits expired. It will add a surcharge to compensate for the money it lost when it had to remove a row or two of economy class seats.
You can't legislate ethics. And no matter what happens — in the end, you will pay for it.
What do you think?
Has the government gone far enough to help airline passengers? Too far? Or is it too late for the government to improve air travel? I'd love to hear your comments.
About the art
Uncle D is back this week with a new illustration. "For this work, it was my goal to capture that universal pain of air travel," he says. "We've all seen it and felt it." He drew inspiration from Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso in depicting passengers wedged into the new standard economy class seats.
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