By: Barbara E. Lichman, Ph.D., J.D.

In a surprising turnaround of its usual tilt toward the interests of the aviation industry, the United States House of Representatives included in the initial version of the six year budget reauthorization for the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 (“Reauthorization Act”), a number of provisions that appear to address the long smoldering, and vociferously expressed, concerns of the flying public with, among other things, the unannounced “bumping” of passengers with reservations and paid tickets to make way for airline employees; airline employees’ difficulty in dealing with passengers in such stressful situations; the size and orientation of aircraft seats that have been radically shrinking in order to make room for more passengers; and even the absence of ground transportation accessing the airport itself.

First, Reauthorization Act, § 406, amends the underlying Federal Aviation Act, 49 U.S.C. § 41712(a) to make it an “unfair or deceptive practice” for an air carrier (i.e., one engaged in commercial operations, see 14 C.F.R. § 250) to “involuntarily deplane” a passenger already on the aircraft if the passenger is “(A) traveling on a confirmed reservation; and (B) checked in for the relevant flight prior to the check in deadline.”  Doubtlessly, this change came in response to the public outcry surrounding the shameful scene of a physician passenger being dragged off an aircraft after having paid and been seated, to make room for an airline employee who was late for a connecting flight.  While § 406 also contains a “savings clause” that allows a pilot in command to react to disorderly or dangerous behavior, the clear intent of § 406 is to relieve passengers of any concern for a blameless, but nonetheless violent, confrontation with airline and/or airport employees.

Similarly, § 540 requires a study of the “training received by customer facing employees of air carriers,” the results of which will be submitted to Congress within one year of the passage of the Reauthorization Act.  In other words, the Secretary of Transportation is tasked with determining if airline employees are adequately trained, given the repeated issues and continuing complaints that have arisen from the public in recent years.

Further, § 541, in a clear response to oft-repeated passenger dissatisfaction with the seats they are required to buy, seeks to determine the “minimum dimensions for passenger seats” that “are necessary for the safety and health of the passengers.”

Last, but certainly not least, in a provision of importance to airports as an industry as well as to their passengers, § 542 provides for a study at the “nation’s 10 busiest airports” of potential solutions to the growing problem of “traffic congestion and passenger travel times between urban commercial centers and airports.”  In doing so, the study anticipates changes in the “guidelines and requirements” for the use of Airport Improvement Program (“AIP”) funds, which currently substantially limit the expenditure of funds for roadway and other surface transportation improvements to those occurring on the airport itself.  FAA Order 5190.6B, § 15.9(i)(2), p. 15-6.  The dramatic change in this policy set forth in the FAA Reauthorization Act will allow the use of AIP funds to facilitate development of an extended roadway network that would bring passengers to the threshold of the airport and continue into the airport itself, thus helping both the passengers and the airports.

In the final analysis, some or all of these provisions (with the potential exception of the last) may be amended out of the legislation, most likely at the behest of the airline industry.  Nevertheless, the inclusion of these provisions in the initial version indicates that the public is not “whistling in the wind” in its growing clamor against the self-serving excesses of certain members of the air transportation industry.

Source: Aviation & Airport Development Law News