After months of debate over the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, and at an apparent impasse over privatizing air traffic control, Congress has settled on a compromise - with some unexpected benefits for the average air traveler.
The House and Senate have agreed on an extension that would fund the agency at current levels through September 2017. Among other things, it would also require airlines to seat families with children together without charging them more, accelerate the security screening process and issue prompt refunds for baggage fees when luggage is lost for more than 12 hours.
The legislation surprised consumer advocates, who had expected a far less ambitious extension bill.
''This is an amazing win for consumers,'' said Charles Leocha, president of Travelers United, a Washington nonprofit organization that advocates for airline passengers and that I am co-founder of. ''It is not everything we wanted, but it is far more than consumers would have gotten with a straight extension.''
It also appeared to take aback airline lobbyists, who anticipated few, if any, new consumer regulations in the extension.
''We believe that provisions designed to re-regulate airline pricing and services are bad for airline customers, employees, the communities we serve and our overall U.S. economy,'' said Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, an airline trade organization.
Perhaps the most troubling item for airlines, in terms of new regulation, is a rule that directs the transportation secretary to establish a policy to allow younger than 13 ''to be seated in a seat adjacent to the seat of an accompanying family member over the age of 13'' at no additional cost. There is an exception for when such a seat assignment would require an upgrade to another cabin class or a seat with extra legroom or seat pitch, for which additional fees generally are required. But as a practical matter, this policy is certain to chip away at the billions of dollars in seat reservation fees the industry collects from passengers annually.
The rule was welcomed by the Family Travel Association, which had been pushing for the legislation.
''We're encouraged that Congress has recognized the challenges families face when traveling and is making it a priority that airlines ensure they sit together when flying,'' said Rainer Jenss, the group's founder and president. ''After all, families represent one of the largest economic drivers of the travel industry, so ensuring their satisfaction isn't just the right thing to do. It makes economic sense.''
The extension bill's greatest impact could be felt when it comes to the Transportation Security Administration, and is almost certainly a direct response to the lengthy security lines travelers have faced this summer. The bill offers several measures intended to expedite screening, including one that directs the agency to keep the PreCheck program's screening lines open and available during peak and high-volume travel times at appropriate airports. Another mandates ''every practicable effort'' to provide expedited screening at standard lanes during times when PreCheck is closed.
The bill also requires the TSA to deploy ''private sector solutions'' in order to increase PreCheck program enrollment. It orders the government to offer secure online and mobile enrollment opportunities and partnerships to collect biographic and biometric identification information. This would be done through kiosks, mobile devices or other mobile platforms to increase enrollment flexibility.
In short, Congress is telling the TSA to shorten the lines, quickly.
''These are much-needed reforms, which are good for consumers,'' said Kendall Creighton, a spokeswoman for Flyersrights.org, an advocacy group for air travelers, noting that long security lines have been a source of agony for air travelers since the spring. It remains to be seen whether these steps will make a difference for the busy holiday air travel season later this year.
The new seating rules are not the only ones upsetting the airline industry. A proposed rule affects another source of almost pure profit: baggage fees. Under current Department of Transportation rules, luggage fees must be refunded only if a bag is lost. The extension directs the DOT to create a rule to require airlines to promptly and automatically refund ''any ancillary fees'' paid for checked baggage if it is delivered later than 12 hours after the arrival of a domestic flight or 15 hours for an international flight. It is unclear what portion of the $3.8 billion in baggage fees collected last year was kept under those circumstances, but under this new rule it is almost certain that baggage-fee revenue will decline.
Congress had also considered legislation that would have required airlines to notify passengers of their consumer rights; prevented them from imposing fees that were not reasonable and proportional to the costs incurred; and established minimum seat room standards. Those measures have been shelved until the current extension expires.
Larry Berman, a Washington attorney and frequent traveler, said air travel has become so uncivilized and dehumanizing that stronger legislation is needed to restore some dignity. Seats are too small for the average passenger, fees are out of control, service is all but extinct and the airline industry is a monopoly, for all intents and purposes, he noted.
''I'd like to see the return of the Civil Aeronautics Board, the federal agency that regulated airline service,'' Berman said. The agency was phased out in 1985 after the airline industry was deregulated.
Will that happen? Observers of the FAA funding process have learned to never say never. After all, who would have predicted this consumer-friendly extension? Re-regulating the industry, while improbable, is not impossible.