At Rainier Beach Press Conference, Cantwell Celebrates First-Of-Their-Kind Airline Consumer Protections Secured in New FAA Law

Cantwell joined by coach of Rainier Beach H.S. boys basketball team stranded in Las Vegas during 2022 Southwest Airlines meltdown; Bill signed on 5/16 guarantees hassle-free refunds for delayed flights, no-fee family seating, and mandatory 24/7 customer support; Last Friday made history with 2.9m air travelers, the busiest day ever for U.S. airports

SEATTLE, WA – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) visited the Rainier Beach Community Center alongside Coach Mike Bethea of the Rainier Beach High School Varsity Boys Basketball team to celebrate new consumer protections for fliers enacted in the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2024.

Over the 2022 holiday season, Coach Bethea and his team were stranded in Las Vegas during Winter Storm Elliott due to Southwest Airlines’ operational meltdown. Sen. Cantwell personally helped Coach Bethea and his wife secure a full refund and other reimbursements from the company.

"It was a daily trek for my wife and I back to the airport in the morning to find out if we could even just get on a standby list to fly home [...] In the meantime, we had a party of 32 including the team. And you have kids who were wanting to get home for Christmas. Parents who were wanting their kids home for Christmas. And so what we basically did was my wife and I, we made sure we focused on making the kids as comfortable as possible. The airline's approach was basically day after day: 'You're on your own. Do what you have to do,'" Coach Bethea said at the press conference today. "I remember the first day when I called out to Southwest Airlines. They put me on hold. And I actually went to sleep. And I woke up and I was still on hold."

"I asked the Betheas, what could we do to improve this situation? They really wanted to make sure they could get someone on the phone. And that is really what we made happen -- literally, in their case -- with the airlines, asking them to call them immediately and rectify this mistake. But I also knew that Congress needed stronger protections for consumers," Sen. Cantwell said. "So for the first time, Congress is setting into law passenger refunds for even non-refundable tickets. You’re now entitled to a hassle-free refund after a three-hour delay of a domestic flight, and a six-hour delay [for] international flights. Putting this into law [...] creates a strong legal foundation no matter who is in the White House in the future. That means it can’t be taken away: It’s in the law. This is a big win for consumers."

Sen. Cantwell was inspired to push for stronger consumer protections after hearing the stories of travelers like Coach Bethea and his team. In February 2023 – after the Betheas spent more than a month going back and forth with Southwest Airlines – Sen. Cantwell summoned COO Andrew Watterson to testify during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. At the hearing, she had a handwritten note with the Betheas’ phone number handed to Watterson and instructed him to call them. Video of that interaction can be viewed HERE.

As chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Sen. Cantwell fought tirelessly for strong consumer protections for travelers throughout the bill negotiation process, including provisions in the final law that will:

  • Set Clear Right to Refunds: A hassle-free refund will be required if a domestic flight is delayed more than 3 hours and if an international flight is delayed more than 6 hours.
  • Require Fee-Free Family Seating: The law prohibits airlines from charging fees for families to sit together.
  • Improve Communication with Consumers When Things Go Wrong: The law requires airlines to provide free, 24/7 access to customer service agents by phone, live chat, or text message to ensure consumers have access to help they need in the event of travel disruptions.
  • Triple Civil Penalties for Violations: To hold airlines accountable, the law triples the DOT’s statutory civil penalty for consumer violations from $25,000 per violation to $75,000.

President Joe Biden signed the bill on May 16 – around a week later, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported that TSA officers screened 2.9 million passengers on May 24, marking the single busiest day for air travel in U.S. history.  Moreover, five of the ten busiest days in TSA’s entire 22-year history have occurred just this month.

“These important new regulations will promote fairness and competition in an industry where passenger rights are too often an afterthought,” Sally Greenberg, president and CEO of the National Consumers League, wrote in a letter to Sen. Cantwell. “Legislating in a divided Congress is never easy, but your leadership on the FAA reauthorization bill helped deliver real, bipartisan achievements. The FAA reauthorization bill will help make flying for Washingtonians and all Americans a fairer and more pleasant experience.”

"We're grateful for Sen. Cantwell's leadership to ensure that meaningful consumer protections were included in the FAA Reauthorization Bill. Complaints against U.S. airlines about refunds, cancellations and other problems hit an all-time high in 2022, as we’ve detailed in our analysis of DOT data. Something had to give. The new law guarantees so many protections that are common sense but took Congress to fix when the airlines wouldn't, dealing with no-hassle refunds, unnecessary fees for children, 24/7 customer service, vouchers that last five years and more. There is still work to be done, but this law goes a long way toward making air travel pleasant again,” said Teresa Murray, Consumer Watchdog Director, U.S. PIRG.

“Airline lobbyists and pro-junk fee Republicans fought hard to prevent the Biden Administration and Secretary Pete Buttigieg from lowering costs for fliers – forcing them to jump through hoops to get refunds they are owed for canceled or delayed flights. But Democrats said no. Now, because of their  hard work, along with the efforts of dozens of consumer advocates, the Biden automatic airline refund rule is the law of the land. Together, we will continue to fight against greedy corporations and for Americans everywhere,” said Joe Van Wye, Senior Legislative Strategist, P Street.

Timeline of Sen. Cantwell’s Actions to Strengthen Consumer Protections for Fliers:

February 7, 2023: Sen. Cantwell held a virtual roundtable to hear from Washington state residents impacted by Southwest Airlines’ holiday travel meltdown. VIDEO | AUDIO | TRANSCRIPT | PHOTOS SHARED BY CONSTIUENTS

February 9, 2023: Sen. Cantwell held a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing to investigate Southwest Airlines’ holiday travel cancellations. Witnesses included the COO of Southwest Airlines and the President of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. VIDEO | AUDIO | TRANSCRIPT

February 16, 2023: Sen. Cantwell sent a letter to Southwest Airlines COO Andrew Watterson demanding additional information about refunds provided to customers impacted by the December holiday travel disruptions.

March 23, 2023: Sen. Cantwell held a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing focused on ensuring consumer protections in the reauthorization of the FAA. OPENING REMARKS | Q&A | TRANSCRIPT

May 9, 2024: The U.S. Senate passed the FAA Reauthorization Bill of 2024. After the final Senate vote, Sen. Cantwell spoke on the Senate floor in support of the legislation. VIDEO | AUDIO | TRANSCRIPT

May 16, 2024:  President Biden signed the FAA Reauthorization bill into law and thanked Sen. Cantwell for her leadership on the legislation.

Video of Sen. Cantwell and Coach Bethea’s remarks are available HERE; photos of the event are HERE; and a transcript is HERE.