FAA Extension is Not an “Amazing Win” For Consumers, But It’s Something

Government Regulation, Safety/Security

I couldn’t help but scratch my head when I saw the headline. “Newly passed air travel legislation is ‘an amazing win for consumers’.” Yes, the House, Senate, and President all miraculously agreed on a bill to do something. And that “something” extended FAA funding into next year. This was mostly kicking the can down the road, but there were some consumer benefits thrown in for good measure. Are they an “amazing win”? Nope.

Feel free to read the bill text and follow along if you’d like. There are two primary changes that impact consumers here.

Refunds for Delayed Baggage
Probably the biggest benefit for consumers here is that this bill requires airlines to refund bag fees if bags are delayed. Or actually, it requires that the Department of Transportation come up with a final rule within 1 year that makes that a reality.

Bag Fee Refund

What the rule will actually say is that if a bag is delayed more than 12 hours past the arrival of a domestic flight or more than 15 hours past the arrival of an international flight, then the bag fees need to be automatically refunded. (There is apparently a little wiggle room on that cutoff, but we won’t know what that really means until there’s an official rule.)

Is this a big deal for travelers? Well it’ll be nice for some but the impact is relatively minimal.

First it’s important to point out that this has nothing to do with the original scheduled arrival time. So if you’re flying Alitalia and your flight is delayed 20 hours, it doesn’t matter. The clock starts from the time you arrive and your bag doesn’t arrive with you.

Let’s look at some numbers. In all of 2015, the airlines that report stats to the DOT (excluding Southwest which doesn’t charge bag fees) mishandled 1.45 million bags, or 120,000 per month. Keep in mind that many of these reports are about damaged bags, so it’s not just bags that are missing. I don’t know how that breaks down, so let’s be conservative and pretend they’re all bags that are delayed.

A lot of people don’t pay bag fees because they’re elite, they’re flying up front, or they have a credit card. I don’t know the specific numbers, but let’s say 75 percent of those bags were actually paid for. That’s 90,000 a month. Now, how many of those were delayed more than 12 hours? I can’t imagine it’s all that many, maybe a high estimate is 20 percent? So we’re now at 18,000. That’s worth $450,000 if the fee was $25 per bag. That’s for the whole industry in one month.

In other words, the impact on the airlines is probably negligible. But on the consumer, it will take the sting out of a delayed bag… unless that bag shows up 11 hours and 45 minutes after arrival. I’d say this is the right thing to do. It might not mean much in terms of revenue, but it just feels right. Why airlines haven’t already done this on their own, I have no idea. I’m sure they’ll blame it on technology, but they can’t use that crutch any longer.

Family Seating

Next up we have this idea of family seating. In short, the idea is noble. It says that the DOT…

…shall review, and if appropriate, establish a policy directing all [domestic] air carriers…to establish policies to enable a child, who is age 13 or under on the date an applicable flight is scheduled to occur, to be seated in a seat adjacent to the seat of an accompanying family member over the age of 13, to the maximum extent practicable and at no additional cost, except when assignment to an adjacent seat would require an upgrade to another cabin class or a seat with extra legroom or seat pitch for which additional payment is normally required.

Family Seating Rule

Alright, not bad, but there are so many things here that take the teeth out of this requirement.

First, we have to realize that this bill mandates nothing. Apparently it falls into the lap of the DOT to decide if this would be “appropriate” or not. I can’t quite understand what would make this inappropriate, but I’m sure there are armies of airline lobbyists lining up to show why that would be the case.

Second, this doesn’t say anything about when this seating has to be provided. In his article, Chris Elliott suggests that “this policy is certain to chip away at the billions of dollars in seat reservation fees the industry collects from passengers annually.” But is that really the case? I can’t imagine so.

If I’m an airline, I’ll guarantee this, but I won’t do it in advance. I’ll just handle it at the airport if there’s a problem. That’s how it’s done today anyway. So for families that want to guarantee seats together in advance, they’ll still have to pay for seating options. They won’t want to wait. Now in theory the DOT could get more restrictive when it issues the rule, but there’s nothing in here that would require that.

Outside of these two provisions, there are some things about improving the security experience (more capacity, Pre Check, etc), but there isn’t any particular benefit there other than “don’t have stupidly long lines like we did this summer.” So this is it.

Do you think these are amazing wins? I can’t see it that way. They’re nice little victories that may feel good but practically won’t mean all that much.

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29 comments on “FAA Extension is Not an “Amazing Win” For Consumers, But It’s Something

  1. The picture in the linked Compost article has a 5 year old tapping at her iPhone while being ignored by mommy. In many ways, the Great Nanny in Sodom-on-the-Potomac does a better job taking care of the children than the actual parents. The DOT and its inane rules are the offspring of the bastardization of the constitution as exemplified by Wickard v. Fillburn. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the nanny state … “

  2. I don’t get the lobbyist dig. Is the insinuation that powerful lobbyists wine and dine faceless bureaucrats at the DOT to get favorable rules? Why wouldn’t that army of lobbyists just kill this bill in the first place.

    1. JR – You don’t think lobbyists are doing everything they can to influence rules? That’s how our system of government works. That’s their job, and I’m sure they’re doing it.

    2. Why kill the bill when you can support a bill that essentially does nothing and doesn’t hurt you? Everyone claims victory. Now THAT’s democracy.

  3. Cranky,
    What’s your over/under on buddy pass riders confronting agents on family seating? I’m guessing that’s among the exclusions.

    1. “to the maximum extent practicable” will probably be interpreted to mean that they can’t take other people seats away to provide family seating.

      1. oh, i’m sure it’s an exclusion because passes are a privilege, not a right.

        You have absolutely no right to be on that airplane. The airline may allow you to be on it, if space allows.

        I’m sure it will continue the erosion of buddy passes though as people start wharrgarbling because they don’t care to understand the rules.

  4. The “benefits” sound like politicians pandering to the voters. While the benefits are minimal to nil it will play well with the media and the masses. So now some politician can say “I made it so your family can sit together on a a plane.” To most people reading this blog they know that was always the case but for the leisure traveler who fears having their family split up it might sway a vote or three.

  5. Keeping children with their parent shouldn’t even need to be discussed, it should be a logical thing that is normally done.

    1. Respectable parents make it their own responsibility to keep their families together on planes by purchasing tickets adequately in advance and/or by picking flights where they can make that happen. So, you’re right… Parents’ behavior should make keeping parents with children something that doesn’t need to be discussed.

      1. You’re being a bit judgey, there are a lot of circumstances resulting in family travel that have nothing to do with a failure to plan ahead.

      2. I doubt you’re a real pediatrician. Think not only of the danger to children by having them sit with strangers, but the liability to the airlines if a child is molested because they couldn’t sit with a parent. You can pay extra fees (I’m paying triple digits in penalties for me and my one child), but if the plane changes, they can still seat you away from your child. You’re a jerk who is probably thinking about how the lost penalties to parents could be passed on to you (no real pediatrician would be more concerned about a buck or two more to make sure children are safe) while ignoring that potential lawsuits and filed lawsuits, many likely sued out of court to avoid the negative press, are passing on even more costs to you.

  6. On the bag thing how is this computed? What happens if your “final destination” is a 4 hour car ride from the airport? Is the refund based on when the courier can “reunite” you with your bag, or just when the bag shows up at the arrival airport?

    1. That’ll be the wiggle room in the rules when the DOT determines it.. There probably will be an expectation that the bag be delivered within 200 miles of the arrival airport or something like that.

    2. Jim M – Congress doesn’t care about details. That’s for DOT to decide. So as Nick says, it’ll be determined by DOT when it’s turned into a rule.

  7. According to my read of “Morning Transportation – Politico,” I see that the FAA reauthorization act runs out in 417 days. Congress will be back in session by then, won’t they?.

    As I read the subject Act, surely there must be support out there for setting up a new Executive Department, the Department of Vetting, or the DOV. It would be a very large department what with the need to ensure that every man, woman and child, or whatever, is consistently and properly vetted, hundreds of times over, at least until death, or a reasonable time thereafter. Of course, using private sector “best practices” and mandating a GAO status/analysis report within 240 days of enactment, should take care of everything!

    Thanks for the post, anyway.

  8. “So if you’re flying Alitalia and your flight is delayed 20 hours,”

    The shade of it all! And, it’s probably likely.

  9. I agree with Cranky here. This is political pandering and almost worthless rules that will rarely come into effect.

    Refunding bag fees if bags don’t arrive 12 hours after you do? I’d bet the vast majority of delayed bags on domestic travel arrive in well under 12 hours. Even for those that don’t, any airline with a lick of customer service should cheerfully refund the bag fee (and if the airline doesn’t do so after the pax makes a stink, for whatever reason, I would argue that a CC chargeback is in order).

    One thing that is worth mentioning as a comparison is Delta’s 20 minute bag delivery guarantee. Given that Delta promises 2,500 Skypesos (miles, not $, I know, but still) if bags arrive >20 minutes late, I’m sure that delivering bags in 36x the time shouldn’t be an issue… And really, if bags do arrive >12 hours after the pax does, odds are VERY, VERY good that there are much more serious issues at stake network wide than just a few forgotten bags (e.g., computer system meltdowns, “storms of the century” at hubs, whatever).

    1. It should be worth mentioning that AS introduced the bag guarantee first and that Delta just copied them (presumably for competitive reasons in SEA).

  10. I just think it’s amazing when Congress and the President combine to get anything done.

    I know that Delta currently will give out a $25 voucher if you have a bag that is delayed more than 12 hours, but you have to fill out an online form to get the voucher. However, if you are elite, you don’t even get the voucher.

    As for families sitting together, I know that the gate agents usually have a few rows in the back to play with in order to keep families together. I wonder if DL has to keep more seating free for families if they buy an E fare? I think if you do buy a fare and are stuck in all middles apart from your family, that’s on the customer for being too cheap to buy a fare that comes with a seating assignment.

  11. Let me assure you that families will expect airlines to move heaven and earth to seat them together….. They won’t understand or care about ‘to the maximum extent possible’ provision. I expect the day to come soon when I loose my long pre-reserved aisle seat and am suddenly in a middle seat in order to accommodate families with children. If I question it I will be told it’s the law and be told that my other option is not to fly.

    1. Well, theoretically, the airline could block off the appropriate seating the moment the reservation is made (even if it is in a lousy back row area). The only time this wouldn’t work is for a last minute flight.

  12. I assume (hopefully not just in my wildest dreams) that the airlines will simply apply the same sort of analysis and logic to seat assignments that they already do to overbooking. Flights that tend to have a lot of family traffic will have more thought given to allowing for families to sit together, and flights to destinations that are more business-oriented will have less. This *shouldn’t* be that difficult (she said sagely, her mouth dripping with sarcasm).

  13. “If I’m an airline, I’ll guarantee this, but I won’t do it in advance. I’ll just handle it at the airport if there’s a problem. That’s how it’s done today anyway. So for families that want to guarantee seats together in advance, they’ll still have to pay for seating options. They won’t want to wait.”

    I think the idea is that if it is guaranteed to get done at the airport, there is no harm in waiting. A family won’t pay more to guarantee seats together in advance when they can just go to the airport and get them. I know that one of the major reasons people pay for advanced seat assignments is the assurance that they will be together. If that assurance is there anyway, there is no need to pay.

  14. Sorry, but I can’t agree with your assessment of this for consumers. The move on families sitting together seems like something that probably could have been handled by the carriers better, but I generally don’t have a lot of sympathy for those involved because I believe most folks just made a choice that they didn’t want to pay.

    Baggage fees are another matter altogether. It is not good enough to just say that it doesn’t happen very often. Passengers who have paid for a bag to be checked, and then that bag doesn’t arrive for two days — they have paid for a service that they didn’t really receive and there should be a financial impact for carriers from this as an incentive to perform better.

    I had a friend on a one-hour flight from DC to Canada last month wait two days for his bag to arrive with no information available on it until the taxi cab with the bag was outside my door. There were at least 4-6 nonstop flights on the route before it finally arrived, and another 12 options if they had sent the bag via another city. It’s great that bags don’t get lost so much anymore, but carriers could vastly improve what happens when they do.

    1. Danie – I’m not sure we do disagree. Sure, this will help some people, but it won’t help a whole lot. So it is a win? Sure, but is it amazing? Not hardly.

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