When Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, the idea was that except for matters of safety, airlines should be free to set their own pricing and service standards without government interference, and let the free market sort things out. But this week some legislators are responding to a growing chorus of consumer outrage by suggesting it might be time for government to stop a heavily consolidated airline industry from abusing passengers by slapping them with ever-higher fees and ever-shrinking personal space.
Congress this month is expected to act on a reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration, and some Senators are trying to use that as a vehicle for change, introducing amendments to protect consumers from further airline abuse.
First, Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) introduced an amendment that would require the FAA to set minimum measurements for airline seating and seat pitch. Blumenthal said the “incredible shrinking airline seat” could pose “a serious threat to the health and safety of passengers,” not only from the dangers of things like blood clots forming in their legs, but also by inhibiting speedy exits in case of emergencies.
That was followed by Blumenthal and Sen. Edward Markey (D.-Mass.) proposing a bill that would bar airlines from assessing passenger fees that are “not reasonable or proportional to the cost of the service.” They cited the growing number and rising levels of “ancillary fees” that have sprung up in recent years, for things like checked bags, itinerary changes and many other amenities and services. The bill’s proposal would be similar in concept to last year’s order from the Transportation Department that airlines assessing fuel surcharges must show a direct relationship between those fee levels and the cost of fuel.
Of course, the airlines are screaming bloody murder about the prospect of any new regulations like the ones above, arguing that they would simply raise the cost of air travel and make it unaffordable for many people.
But consumer groups contend that in order for competition to act as an effective regulator of the airlines, there must be enough competitors to make it work – and that might not be the case following the industry’s rapid consolidation in recent years.
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