Eleven Pounds of New Law,
Big Changes on the Road
SUNDAY, MAY 5, 2024 -- May is supposed to be the merry month, so I'll happily give you a pass if you haven't been paying attention to the politics of travel just now.

But here's the thing: While you've been paying no mind, the Federal Aviation Administration runs out of money on Friday, May 10, and politicians are supposedly coming to the rescue with a huge four-year reauthorization bill that is chockablock with stuff that really does affect our lives on the road. You need to pay heed to this big bill.

Big being the operative word. It's 1,069 pages long. When printed, the legislation makes a stack about 10 inches high and it weighs about 11 pounds. The PDF version is a whopping 2.1 megabytes. And, oh yeah, the bill spends more than $105 billion for the FAA and appropriates another nearly $740 million for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Like I said, big stuff.

Before we get into the good and the bad of the surprisingly bipartisan legislation, let's talk about what is not in this gargantuan measure. Ted Cruz's vanity project--private airport security screening for the politically well-connected--was dropped. The proposal to increase the mandatory retirement age for pilots to 67 from 65 was deep-sixed. A proposal to permit aspiring pilots to substitute some simulator time in place of actual time at the controls of an aircraft was also jettisoned. The bill will not require the FAA to set minimum seat sizes, either.

One of the least controversial parts of the bill is the requirement that cockpit voice recorders hold 25 hours of conversation. Current CVRs only record two hours' worth of cockpit chatter. Except for pilots, who insist that this key data is somehow a violation of their privacy, everyone thinks that 25-hour CVR "black box" devices are a great way to help investigators reverse-engineer aircraft incidents. According to the legislation, new airplanes must be delivered with 25-hour boxes within one year. Existing aircraft must be retrofit within six years.

The reauthorization act also requires the FAA do things that it already is supposed to do: hire and train thousands more air traffic controllers and install better ground-traffic systems at airports. Both should have been handled years or even decades ago. Both may or may not be achieved thanks to the newest mandates.

Since this is politics, of course, virtue signaling and culture wars are a given. So this legislation would prohibit federal airport improvement funds being used to purchase passenger bording bridges made in China. It would also bar the FAA from imposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates on its employees and prohibit airlines from denying passage to unvaccinated travelers.

The Essential Air Service (EAS) program was created in the late 1970s to mitigate the impact of airline deregulation on small airports expected to lose service. Airlines would receive subsidies to keep flying to affected airports, many of them in otherwise inaccessible areas of Alaska and Hawaii. EAS subsidies were initially set to expire in 1988. The program is not only still alive and covers more airports than in the first years after deregulation, but the bill will extend the boondoggle with lavish subsidies: $340 million in fiscal 2025, $342 million in 2026 and 2027 and $350 million in 2028. Airlines will continue to be paid to fly to airports like Lancaster, Pennsylvania--only about 70 miles from Philadelphia--and Pueblo, Colorado, only about 47 miles from Colorado Springs. Some airlines will receive as much as $850 a passenger to fly essentially ghost routes with tiny planes and lousy schedules.

In case you're not familiar with flight patterns near the District of Columbia, there are two airports: close-in, fly-speck-sized Washington/National and sprawling, somewhat distant Washington/Dulles. United maintains a wobbly hub at Dulles. American dominates at National, where it operates a hub at an airport totally ill-equipped to be a hub. The fillip is that Washington/National has been barred since 1966 from handling flights longer than 1,250 miles. Airlines must have an exemption to fly beyond that distance "perimeter." About 20 roundtrips daily have exemptions. Delta lobbied for 28 longer-haul new roundtrips from DCA and wanted to be the carrier to fly most of them. United and American naturally opposed any infringement on their cozy duopoly. This bill splits the baby, opening up five new beyond-perimeter roundtrips and essentially awards one to each existing DCA player. Local pols--including the U.S. senators from Virginia and Maryland--vociferously oppose more flights at DCA and may gum up passage of the reauthorization. What's best for passengers? More flights are always good, of course, but this is no way to micromanage airspace.

Finally, the most important for last: Refunds when airlines screw up.

Two weeks ago, the Biden Administration ordered the DOT to require airlines to process automatic refunds when flights are cancelled or delayed three (domestically) or six hours (internationally). The FAA reauthorization bill, however, would require passengers to proactively request refunds, a move consumer advocates insist would allow airlines to pocket millions in ill-gotten gains. As usual, airlines shot themselves in the rhetorical and metaphoric foot, claiming that automatic refunds would require them to raise fares. It's an admission that airlines consider refund "breakage"--i.e., flyers accepting travel vouchers instead of cash or not requesting refunds at all--a significant source of revenue.

But I think the arguments on both sides miss the mark. Of course, airlines should not be allowed to sit on our dough or only issue travel vouchers instead of cash refunds. But if the DOT requires automatic refunds, I fear airlines will use that as a ploy to screw us, too.

Consider: An airline cancels your return flight and immediately refunds your money. They are now off the hook for getting you home. It can insist you must buy a new return ticket--at a rapacious higher fare, of course--because, after all, it already refunded your money per government rule.

This part of the reauthorization bill must be reconsidered so the airlines can't use refunds as a cudgel against us.