Cantwell at Aviation Consumer Protections Hearing: Congress Must End Unfair and Hidden Airline “Junk Fees”

March 23, 2023

Senator: “We must improve the consumer experience”

Chair sets clear goals for FAA reauth:  New Passenger Bill of Rights, minimum seat size, triple penalties for non-compliance 

Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, (D-Wash.), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, delivered the following remarks at a hearing on enhancing consumer protections and connectivity in air transportation in the next FAA reauthorization legislation. The Committee heard testimony from Washington State witness, Chelan Douglas Regional Port Authority Director of Airports Trent Moyers, Association of Flight Attendants International President Sara Nelson, American Economic Liberties Project Aviation and Travel Senior Fellow William McGee, American Antitrust Institute President Diana Moss, Paralyzed Veterans of America Associate Executive Director of Government Relations Heather Ansley and former U.S. Department of Transportation Under Secretary for Policy Jeffrey Shane. Read the witness testimonies and watch the hearing here.

Senator Cantwell’s Remarks as Delivered – VIDEO

Today we will be discussing the importance of strengthening consumer protections, expanding access for travelers and commuters across America.

The American consumer has had a rough flying experience over the past few years. In 2020, the Department of Transportation received nearly 30,000 airline refund complaints, more than a 4,600 percent increase from 2019. The following year, in 2021, DOT received over 6,600 complaints, still nearly a 1000 percent increase over pre-pandemic levels.

And last year, by November 2022, U.S. consumer complaints were already 603 percent higher than in November 2019.

And then we had the massive disruptions that left nearly 2 million Southwest Airlines passengers delayed and stranded across the country.

In these situations, the U.S. consumer is left with limited information, hardly any choices, and very little recourse. 

In this year’s FAA reauthorization, I hope we can work together on a new passenger bill of rights that gets a better deal for the U.S. consumer.  Consumers deserve a concrete definition of significant delays or cancelations of your flight and they deserve a very timely refund.

We must take down the hurdles to getting your money back when you don’t receive the service you paid for. Any travel credit if accepted in lieu of a refund should never expire. That’s your money and should be in your bank account.

We also need to have real time, real person communication when a system breaks down like in the Southwest situation. That system failure left consumers stranded without any information and no one to talk to. In this kind of a massive shutdown, we need a better communication system.

Second, Congress must end unfair and hidden fees known as “junk fees” that’s taking real money out of the pockets of Americans.

We should force the rebooking fees [to end], when your flight is cancelled or delayed by the airline itself, and stop that practice.  We should make sure that families aren’t charged just for sitting next to each other at the very beginning of a flight when there are many flight options. I look forward to hearing from Bill McGee on this issue this morning.

Many passengers with disabilities, especially those with wheelchairs, are cut off from their families and opportunities just because of these issues. Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants, and Heather Ansley, from Paralyzed Veterans of America, will provide more information on this topic.

We also need to address, thirdly, that Congress gave the FAA the specific task of establishing what is a minimum seat size for airlines. The FAA has failed to take action on this. And this Committee should help resolve that issue.

To make this new Passenger Bill of Rights stick, we should formally authorize, fully fund and staff up the Department of Transportation Office of Aviation and Consumer Protection. This makes sense, given the incredible increase in workload and surge from consumer complaints.

Secretary Buttigieg has taken important steps to protect consumers, but we need more policemen on the beat to execute these tools.

We should consider tripling the civil penalties for non-compliance, the cost of bad actors continuing to do [bad] things.

We must improve the consumer experience.

But today we also must talk about enabling the rural markets and small markets who are trapped because of the lack of air transportation systems. Most economic development happens within 10 miles of an airport. So if we’re hampering our airports, we are hampering our economic development.

I am proud that Trent Moyers, Director of Airports at the Chelan Douglas Port Authority, who will talk about why Wenatchee – the Apple Capital of the World – needs to have good air transportation.

Next to the airport, Microsoft is building a 41,000-square-foot data center that will employ 50 full-time employees. This a $400 million investment that would not be possible without the airport connection to the larger Washington economy.

So we have to have our communities like Wenatchee thrive. And for Wenatchee to thrive, they need good air transportation connectivity. 

This Committee also needs to deal with this issue and help rural America have good air transportation service.