On April 20, 2016, the U.S. Senate passed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2016 that would authorize funding for programs under the FAA through September 2017. Most of the extensive legislation focuses on U.S. aviation infrastructure and other issues that most directly affect U.S. airlines. The legislation, however, also includes several provisions – touted as consumer protection measures – that could impact non-U.S. airlines if those provisions were to become law. If the legislation becomes law in its current form, both U.S. and foreign air carriers would be required to:

  • Automatically refund checked baggage fees if a bag arrives more than 12 hours after an international flight;
  • Automatically refund fees for services purchased but not received (e.g., seat assignments, early boarding, and carry-on bags), including on the passenger’s scheduled flight, on a subsequent replacement itinerary if there has been a rescheduling, or for a flight not taken by the passenger;
  • Disclose in a standardized format the carrier’s baggage fees, cancellation fees, change fees, ticketing fees, and seat selection fees. Such disclosure must be prominently displayed to a consumer prior to the point of purchase in clear and plain language and in an easily readable font size;1
  • Disclose to a consumer that seat selection for which a fee is charged is an optional service, and that if a consumer does not pay for a seat assignment, a seat will be assigned to the consumer from available inventory at the time the consumer checks in for the flight or prior to departure;
  • Provide services to passengers and their families in accordance with a foreign air carrier’s Family Assistance Plan when there is an aircraft accident that results in any loss of life. Previously, foreign carriers were only required to activate their plan in the event of an aircraft accident that resulted in a major or significant loss of life; and
  • Prohibit the use of electronic cigarettes onboard aircraft.

The legislation must now be reconciled with the version approved by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which differs significantly. For example, the House version contains a controversial provision that would privatize the U.S. air traffic control system, whereas the Senate version contains no such provision.

The White House praised the Senate’s effort, but urged that FAA Reauthorization legislation last longer than the September 2017 extension in the Senate version. The House version, which the full House has not yet considered, would last six years. In addition, the White House has voiced concerns about certain safety and security provisions included in that version of the legislation. If the two chambers can reconcile their respective versions, the legislation will proceed to the president for his signature. If this cannot be accomplished by July 15, 2016, when the current legislation authorizing the FAA is due to expire, Congress is likely to consider passing a shorter-term extension of the current legislation.