Chair Cantwell Calls for New ‘Passenger Bill of Rights’ in Committee Hearing on Aviation

March 24, 2023

FAA reauth to address junk fees, murky refund processes and shrinking airline seats Cantwell says  


WASHINGTON D.C. –  Yesterday, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, led a hearing focused on protecting airline travelers and called for a new Passenger Bill of Rights” in the forthcoming reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that would strengthen refund rules, eliminate junk fees, work toward a minimum seat size and make it easier for families to sit together on a flight.

“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,” Sen. Cantwell said in her opening remarks. “We must take down the hurdles to getting your money back when you don’t receive the service you paid for. Any travel credits accepted in lieu of refunds should never expire: that’s your money, and should be in your bank account.”

“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, when your flight is cancelled or delayed by the airline itself, to end and stop that practice.  We should make sure that families aren’t charged just for sitting next to each other,” she continued. “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.”

Sen. Cantwell also recognized that for legislation to have real teeth to ensure consumer protection rules are not going unchecked, proper oversight starts with properly funding the Department of Transportation: “[T]o make this new Passenger Bill of Rights stick, we should formally authorize, fully fund, and staff up the Department of Transportation Office of Aviation Consumer Protection. This makes sense, given the incredible increase in workload and surge from consumer complaints.”

William McGee, a consumer advocate and aviation fellow at the American Economic Liberties Project, agreed, noting that we are seeing new lows in customer service while and the industry needs more oversight and enforcement of the rules currently on the books.

“The bottom line is that when you look at the refund problem, there are multiple layers to it,” McGee said. “…[W]e do have an existing DOT rule that says you are entitled to a cash refund if your flight is canceled for any reason, whether it's the airline's fault or not.  It is clear that U.S. airlines … have blatantly violated that rule. And there has not been enough enforcement on that.”

In an exchange with Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants, Cantwell emphasized the unrealistic and chaotic scheduling by airlines that results in backed up flights, congestion and frustrated consumers and frontline workers. 

“Do you agree that DOT should be carefully examining whether airlines are publishing unrealistic schedules and leaving workers and consumers in a bind?” Sen. Cantwell asked.

“I agree with that wholeheartedly,” Nelson responded. “And it was because of pressure from lawmakers and from DOT, that the airlines rolled back that unrealistic service this last summer.  So there needs to continue to be a real transparency on that, and oversight on that, to make sure that we're not over promising because the people on the frontlines are left to hold the bag.  And we also are not getting home to our loved ones.”

Nelson continued, referring to the lack of infrastructure investment by airlines into proper scheduling technology – such as the technology that failed during Southwest’s winter meltdown:  “So when the operation falls apart like that, many times the people on the front lines are left on hold for five, six hours to try to get through to a scheduler in order to get rescheduled. So it takes the proper investment in infrastructure for the airlines. It takes the proper staffing, both in terms of the frontlines and the back end to support that frontline crew. And it can't be, as Senator Welch said, just driven to share price because that is what we end up with.”

Sen. Cantwell has been a vocal advocate for stronger consumer protections for air passengers. Following the 2022 Southwest Airlines holiday flight cancellations that stranded millions of passengers nationwide, Sen. Cantwell called on the COO of Southwest Airlines to testify before the committee to clarify the number of tickets cancelled and amount of reimbursements Southwest fulfilled. Prior to the Southwest hearing, Sen. Cantwell held a virtual roundtable with five Washington state residents who were impacted by flight cancellations or struggled to receive reimbursements.

Sen. Cantwell has continued to press Southwest Airlines and sent a letter demanding additional information about the refunds provided to customers impacted during the holiday travel disruptions.