National Consumers League

NCL letter to the Senate Commerce Committee in support for Markey/Blumenthal Passengers' Bill of Rights

June 26, 2017 

The Honorable John Thune
Chairman
Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
United States Senate
512 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510 

The Honorable Bill Nelson
Ranking Member
Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
United States Senate
512 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senators Thune and Nelson,

The National Consumers League urges you to support the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights introduced by Senators Markey and Blumenthal.[1] This pro-consumer legislation would lay the groundwork for increased competition and introduce long-awaited consumer protections to the airline marketplace.

Today, unchecked consolidation has allowed 4 airlines to control 80% of domestic flights. This consolidation has left many cities at the mercy of one or two airlines, and left many consumers with no choice but to keep returning to the same airlines that continue to mistreat them. Given this lack of competition and choice, it is perhaps little wonder that consumers are forced to suffer from a laundry list of mistreatment including:

  1. Airlines have increased load factors to more than 80%.[2] This makes overbooking situations more likely and increases the hardship faced by consumers when mass cancellations occur either due to weather, or due to a airline wide technological failure.
  2. 40,629 paying consumers were involuntarily bumped in 2016.[3]
  3. Seat size pitch has dropped from 35 inches in the 1970s an average of 31 inches today.[4] The decreased seat size has raised concerns in the medical community due to the fear of deep vein thrombosis[5] and disability rights community who are concerned that their constituents are not able to use the inflight lavatories.[6]

With shrinking seats, involuntary bumpings, and with few rights in the event of a cancellation, it is perhaps not surprising that airline complaints have skyrocketed nearly 70% in recent months.[7] The Passengers’ Bill of Rights will address these concerns by:

  1. Prohibiting involuntary bumping - Airlines that wish to continue the practice of overselling will have to revert to the free market concept of offering increasing levels of compensation to motivate consumers to take a later flight.
  2. Requiring airlines to maintain interline agreements with other airlines, and compensate consumers for lengthy delays - Interlining agreements will allow consumers to get to their destination sooner, and in the event that flying on another airline is not possible, they will receive the accommodations they deserve.
  3. Creating a minimum seat size standard - After careful study by health professionals and input from the disability rights community, the Department of Transportation will create a minimum seat size standard that will protect consumers from the adverse health effects of squeezing yourself into a small seat.
  4. Reining in out-of-control nickel-and-diming - Airlines will be required to justify sky-high ancillary fees for services like changes and cancellations and baggage fees. Airlines will also be required to refund bag fees immediately when a bag is lost or damaged.
  5. Reinstating passengers’ access to the courts - Consumers will once again be able to hold airlines accountable for denying them basic rights, including denying people with disabilities access to airline facilities
  6. Beginning to address the lack of competition in the airline industry - The GAO will begin a long-overdue review of the impact of the dramatic consolidation of the U.S. airline industry on consumers and competition

U.S. airlines have long claimed that deregulation, combined with competition would lead to a better air travel experience for all. Unfortunately for consumers, the mergers they promised would improve their service have instead only raised prices and lowered customer service. The Passengers’ Bill of Rights would restore the basic rights of passengers when they fly. NCL strongly urges you to support this common sense, pro-consumer legislation.

Sincerely,

Sally Greenberg
Executive Director
National Consumers League

CC: Members of the Senate Commerce Committee



[1] “MARKEY, BLUMENTHAL INTRODUCE AIRLINE PASSENGERS’ BILL OF RIGHTS,” Press release. June 26, 2017. Online: https://www.markey.senate.gov/news/press-releases/markey-blumenthal-introduce-airline-passengers-bill-of-rights

[2] Bureau of Transportation Statistics. “Load Factor (passenger-miles as a proportion of available seat-miles in percent (%)) All U.S. Carriers - All Airports,” Online: https://www.transtats.bts.gov/Data_Elements.aspx?Data=5

[3] United States Department of Transportation. Air Travel  Consumer Report. Pg. 35. April 2017. Online: https://www.transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/docs/resources/individuals/aviation-consumerprotection/278481/2017-april-atcr.pdf

[4]Congressman Steve Cohen. “Reps. Cohen and Kinzinger, Senators Blumenthal, Schumer, Markey, Menendez and Feinstein Introduce Bipartisan, Bicameral SEAT Act,” Press release. March 9, 2017. Online: https://cohen.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/reps-cohen-and-kinzinger-senators-blumenthalschumer-markey-menendez-and

[5] “Safety risk of shrinking airline seats questioned,” Los Angeles Times. April 14, 2015. Online:             http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-airline-seat-risks-20150414-story.html

[6] Eng, Dinah. “Smaller Bathrooms on Planes Pose Challenges for Passengers,” New York Times. December 23, 2016. Online: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/travel/smaller-airplane-bathrooms-challenges-forpassengers.html

[7] U.S. Department of Transportation. Air Travel Consumer Report. June 2017. Pg. 37. Online: https://cms.dot.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/docs/resources/individuals/aviation-consumer-protection/282456/2017juneatcr_0.pdf