WASHINGTON – Like most travelers this summer, Republican Baton Rouge U.S. Rep. Garret Graves often wants to yell at shrugging airline employees unable to help consumers stranded by unexplained flight delays or cancellations.
As chair of the U.S. House Aviation subcommittee, however, Graves has more say so with the airline industry and their regulators, the Federal Aviation Administration.
“This is personal. I’ve certainly been on the receiving end a lot of awful experiences,” said Graves, who flies at least twice a week, sometimes more. “But the deal is you can’t just go in and say, ‘I’m going to fine an airline’ and expect something to get better.”
Graves played a key role in drafting the Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act, which on Thursday is expected to receive an up or down vote by the full House. Ostensibly legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration’s work for another five years, House Resolution 3935 also is the most sweeping bill concerning airline travel since the industry was deregulated in 1978.
The legislation is sponsored by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Sam Graves, R-Missouri, and that panel’s ranking Democratic member, Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Washington, as well as Garret Graves and Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee.
The bill would create a commission to oversee airline complaints, raise the age of mandatory retirement for pilots, regulate rural airports for the first time, change requirements to ease hiring, and require airlines to develop rules to expand their use of drones for hurricane recovery, fighting forest fires and, eventually, delivering goods to homes.
Staffing woes cause delays, cancellations
U.S. airlines are expected to carry 257 million passengers between June 1 and August 31, according to the Airlines for America, a trade group representing airlines. The airline industry is hiring more employees and making moves to address the delays that have become more acute during the summer season.
From Sunday through Tuesday alone, 127,215 flights across the U.S. had been delayed, and 8,678 flights canceled, according to FlightAware. The U.S. Department of Transportation received 111.7% more complaints from travelers between January 2022 and January 2023 — mostly because of flight disruptions, according to the department’s Air Travel Consumer Report.
“We had all kinds of issues that have been plaguing or contributing to delays,” Garret Graves said. The airlines have no say over air traffic control or antiquated technology, for example. So to fine airlines for delays caused by those factors is “not really fair, and, most importantly, it’s not going to actually solve the problem,” he added.
H.R. 3935 attempts to address the shortage of air-traffic controllers, pilots and other essential personnel, and to make improved technology more easily deployable, Graves said.
United Airlines in February 2022 left Alexandria altogether in large part because of the difficulty in finding pilots to fly the route, according to press reports and congressional staffers.
The personnel shortages that cause delays at one Louisiana airport can also slow things up at connecting hub airports in Houston or Atlanta, and then, at airports in other locations on the flight schedule, said Jim Caldwell, spokesperson for the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport.
For that reason, Baton Rouge airport officials are watching the debate in Washington closely.
“We agree with the efforts being made in this legislation because they will help alleviate the staffing issues,” Caldwell said.
H.R. 3935 has wide bipartisan support, unlike other bills that have originated in the Republican-majority House. It likely will become law before the end of the year.
Cohen, the ranking Democrat on Graves’ subcommittee, praised the bill in a statement: “This transformative legislation, which required compromises from both sides, will improve the safety of the flying public, create good jobs and bolster the aviation workforce pipeline,” he said.
And House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, told reporters Tuesday that the U.S. is still “the gold standard” for aviation travel. But: “We have serious problems that need to be addressed, and this bill starts that process of addressing some of those problems,” he said.
Bill has its critics
Not every section in the 800-plus-page bill is universally embraced.
Some unions and conservatives, for instance, oppose the idea of extending the age of mandatory retirement for pilots from 65 to 67 years old, a move Graves said would help alleviate the pilot shortage.
“Is there really that much of a difference between somebody who’s 60 and very fit and in good health and somebody who’s you know 65, 66 and who’s in the same situation?” Graves said. “And if there is, can’t that get caught or addressed in the medical screening, which includes mental health?”
Still, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, representing 50,000 flight attendants at 19 airlines, argues that reintroducing already retired pilots would require retraining and slow the careers of pilots under the age of 65. “This language will result in chaos in the operation and increased training costs and time,” the labor organization said in statement.
Another issue: The Senate and House are divided on just how pilots should be trained. Pilots must complete 1,500 hours of flight training, under current law. But the House, and some of the airlines, want to allow pilots to use 150 hours of simulated flight training towards that 1,500-hour minimum.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, supports H.R. 3935, but wants a harder push against junk fees, which it says inflate prices unnecessarily. “The administration encourages the Congress to include the administration’s proposals to expand consumer protections by banning family-seating junk fees, requiring up-front disclosure of add-on fees, and requiring automatic refunds and additional compensation for controllable flight cancellations and delays.”
Democratic senators have also been pushing for the bill to force airlines to refund passengers when an airline cancels or significantly delays a flight.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, the chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, wants the bill to set “the first-ever clear ticket refund standards for delayed flights and will penalize airlines that sell tickets on flights that they don’t have the staff or technology to operate.”
But Graves argues that a better approach would be to rely on a council to review complaints, then enact regulations.
“We establish an advisory council to think about the passenger experience from curb-to-curb, departure to destination: parking, baggage check, security, dealing with air traffic disruptions, and everything else,” he said.
The bill’s biggest hurdle, however, has nothing to do with Louisiana or partisan divides.
Lawmakers are at odds over whether the bill should allow airlines to add more longer distance flights out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, which is within sight of the U.S. Capitol but forbids most flights traveling more than 1,250 miles, which is about halfway through Texas. Congress members from western states want to fly home using the much more convenient National Airport rather than the facilities in suburban Virginia or suburban Baltimore.
Representatives and senators from Maryland and Virginia are adamantly opposed to that move, arguing that it would only increase congestion on the already over-taxed runways at National Airport and would undermine the business plans of Dulles International Airport and the Baltimore /Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
“That’s going to be really controversial. It will be a big fight,” Graves said.