by Joan Lowy, The Associated Press, March 18, 2016
WASHINGTON (AP) — A Senate panel approved an aviation policy bill Wednesday after a partisan fight over whether airlines gouge consumers with fees for basic services like checked bags, seat assignments and ticket changes.
The Senate commerce committee approved by voice vote a bill to continue the Federal Aviation Administration's authority to operate through Oct. 1, 2017. That authority is due to expire on March 31.
The committee's Democrats, led by Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., tried to add a provision to the bill to prohibit airlines from setting unreasonable fee prices and direct the Transportation Department to establish what is reasonable. The amendment failed on a party-line tie vote.
Consumers are being "gouged" by excessive fees, but they don't have any choice but to pay them if they want to get to their destination, Markey said.
"There is some really bad behavior going on here, particularly in those routes where there is no competition and they can get away with whatever they want to do because there is no alternative," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Republicans said the provision would be burdensome for airlines and that market forces should be allowed to determine fee prices.
"No one here can argue fees aren't unpopular," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the committee's chairman. "However, it's not up to the federal government to determine when fees are unreasonable." Rather, that should be determined by consumers through comparison shopping, he said.
Thune noted that the bill already includes several consumer provisions. Among those is a requirement that the department standardize the way airlines and ticket services disclose fees for basic services so that passengers can more easily comparison-shop the full cost of flights.
Airlines would also have to return fees for bags that are lost or delayed more than six hours after the arrival of a domestic flight, and more than 12 hours after the arrival of an international flight under the bill. Airlines would be required to automatically refund fees for services purchased but not received by passengers. Examples would be advance seat assignments that turn out to be unavailable or early boarding that isn't provided.
Nick Calio, president of Airlines for America, a trade association for major airlines, has criticized the provisions as "taking steps backward toward reregulation" of the industry.
Market forces are working in some cases because airlines like Southwest try to attract customers by not charging fees, said McCaskill. But she added, "The airlines need to take notice that the flying public is really upset here."
With the exception of Southwest, all major U.S. airlines and most smaller airlines charge bag fees on domestic flights, typically about $25.
In other areas, the committee added a provision to the bill that requires that drone operators disclose to a commercial and government database if they collect personally identifiable information about an individual, including through the use of facial recognition. They also must disclose how the personal data will be used, including for advertising or marketing purposes, and when the sensitive information will be destroyed. The database is to be searchable online.
Missing from the bill is any effort to wrest air traffic control operations from the FAA and spin them off into a private, nonprofit corporation. An FAA reauthorization bill that would have privatized air traffic control services was passed last month by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on a mostly party-line vote with Democrats unanimously opposed. The bill has the backing of the committee's chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., and the airline industry, but it was sidelined by House leaders in the face of opposition from other powerful GOP lawmakers and influential segments of the aviation industry.
Thune said he is proceeding with the Senate bill, which has bipartisan support, in an effort to accomplish important policy changes now, while leaving privatization supporters to work out whether their plan can win congressional approval. He indicated that once the bill passes the Senate, he's willing to discuss other proposals with the House.
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