In rapid fire in recent weeks, the DOT and FAA have presented a series of announcements and regulatory proposals that could lead to new protections for airline customers on issues ranging from refunds to seat sizes and policies. of seats.
As US airlines face heavy public criticism for a summer full of poor operations, some industry watchers consider the timing of the announcements politically motivated.
“It’s good politics to beat up people your constituents hate,” said Bryan Del Monte, president of the Aviation Agency, an ad agency.
But analysts have mixed views on whether the proposals represent a meaningful change for government watchdogs who have been reluctant in recent years to impose their will on air carriers.
“This seems like a dramatic departure from their traditional position, going back many years, at least until the first Obama administration,” said Paul Hudson, founder of consumer advocacy group Flyers Rights. “And certainly the fact that things have obviously gotten worse with air travel, that’s a big part of that.”
Bill McGee, senior aviation researcher at the American Economic Liberties Project, a consumer advocacy group, said that while he welcomes the review of new regulations, he also considers some of the recent DOT announcements and from the FAA like lip service.
“Quite frankly, on the enforcement side, the DOT under [secretary Pete] Buttigieg was a huge disappointment,” McGee said.
Regulations proposed by the DOT in early August would impose new reimbursement requirements on airlines that delay flights and create a right to reimbursement for passengers who cancel their travel plans for health reasons. Specifically, the proposal would require airlines to offer refunds for domestic flights delayed more than three hours and for international flights delayed more than six hours.
In a separate action in early August, the FAA launched a regulatory review process that could lead to the establishment of minimum seat sizes on commercial aircraft and minimum requirements for the amount of space between rows of aircraft. .
Also in early August, Buttigieg pledged to work to force airlines to allow passengers to remain in their personal wheelchairs when flying. And in July, the DOT warned airlines that they should ensure children can sit on flights alongside accompanying adults at no additional cost. Failing to do so within four months, the department could launch a formal rule-making process that would prohibit airlines from charging fees for such seating arrangements.
Regulations were in preparation
In a statement, a DOT spokesperson noted that some of the department’s recent airline actions have been in the works for a long time. Plans for the development of refund rules were announced in the ministry’s spring agenda document, and a statement of rights for airline passengers with disabilities, issued in July, was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Chris Brown, vice president of government affairs for the National Air Carrier Association, which counts ultra-low-cost carriers such as Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant among its members, offered a similar perspective.
“I think what you’re seeing is the DOT and the FAA trying to clear the books on the warrants included in the 2018 [FAA reauthorization] bill,” he said. This bill called on the FAA to establish a minimum necessary size standard for airplane seats to maintain a 90-second evacuation time.
Brown noted that the FAA also recently proposed regulations requiring new commercial aircraft to have a secondary cockpit door, a measure that was also mandated in the 2018 FAA authorization. And the agency is working to finalize a regulation. that would increase the mandatory time between flight attendant shifts, as stated in 2018 by Congress.
The current FAA authorization expires in October 2023.
Still, Brown acknowledges that recent calls by members of Congress to act against the airlines could have an influence.
“Secretary Buttigieg is listening to the Hill as well,” he said.
McGee also acknowledged Buttigieg’s political acumen. But he slammed the DOT secretary for the department’s lack of enforcement action against airlines for what he says were widespread violations early in the pandemic of their obligation to refund flights they cancel.
So far, the department has only fined Air Canada for refund violations, although it says it is currently pursuing legal action against 10 other airlines. While McGee welcomed the tougher reimbursement rules proposed by the DOT, he said the process of codifying it as law will likely last beyond this presidential term.
“We have yet to see a $1 fine on a US airline for refunds in the last two and a half years,” he said. “How long does it take to conduct this investigation?”
Flyers Rights, which sued the FAA in January in a bid to force the agency to act on the 2018 seat size mandate, planned to release its own seat size proposal on the public record last week, Hudson said. . Hudson called the FAA’s decision to formally seek public comment on the safety impacts of existing airline seats and cabin configurations “a small step forward.”