Cantwell FAA Bill Codifies New Flyer Protections Into Law: Hassle-Free Ticket Refunds, No-Fee Family Seating & 24/7 Customer Support

Bill includes top Cantwell priorities to protect consumers from frustrating fees & inconsistent policies across airlines

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, following months of negotiations led by Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for five years.

Throughout the negotiation process, Sen. Cantwell fought tirelessly for strong consumer protections. For the first time, passengers will have clear standards codified in federal law for refunds when an airline cancels or significantly delays a flight. 

“Statutory rights to refunds are a big win for consumers in this bill. Passengers can reject vouchers or alternative flights and without hassle get a refund,” said Sen. Cantwell.

The legislation prioritizes investments to strengthen consumer protections, including provisions that would:

Set Clear Right to Refunds: A refund will be required if a domestic flight is delayed 3 hours and if an international flight is delayed 6 hours.

  • "This bill also does something for the first time for consumers: It says that you deserve a refund after a three-hour delay. Even if you have a nonrefundable ticket. You also deserve a refund for an international flight if it's been delayed for six hours," Sen. Cantwell said on the floor last week. "If the airlines break these rules, guess what happens? The DOT Assistant Secretary is authorized to issue penalties up to $75,000.”

Require Fee-Free Family Seating: The bill prohibits airlines from charging fees for families to sit together.

Improve Communication with Consumers When Things Go Wrong: The bill requires airlines to provide free, 24/7 access to customer service agents by phone, live chat, or text message.

  • During Southwest Airlines’ system meltdown over the 2022 holiday season, the airline failed to communicate with passengers stranded at airports. Some airlines dropped their call centers altogether or charged fees to speak to live agents on the phone. While finalizing this legislation, Sen. Cantwell held a virtual roundtable with Washington-based travelers impacted by the meltdown to hear about their experiences; she later grilled Southwest’s CEO during a committee hearing and urged him to make things right for the thousands of families stranded over the 2022 holiday season, including the Rainier Beach High School boys basketball team who were left stranded in Las Vegas for five days, piling up more than $10,000 in out-of-pocket expenses for food and lodging.

Triples Civil Penalties for Violations: To hold airlines accountable, the bill doubles the DOT’s statutory civil penalty for consumer violations from $25,000 per violation to $75,000.

Among the provisions to strengthen consumer protections, Sen. Cantwell’s landmark legislation also reauthorizes the FAA and NTSB for five years, supports workforce development, boosts innovation and R&D, and improves aviation safety. Full text of the bill is available HERE;

Watch Sen. Cantwell speak on the Senate floor about stronger consumer protections in the aviation industry:

Sen. Cantwell first introduced the Senate FAA Reauthorization bill on June 12, 2023, along with Sens. Cruz, Duckworth, and Moran, and the Committee passed the legislation with bipartisan support on February 8, 2024. The Committee held eight hearings to inform the bill’s drafting, including: Integrating new entrants into the National Airspace System on September 28, 2022, strengthening airline operations and consumer protections following the Southwest and holiday cancellations on February 9, 2023, modernizing the FAA’s NOTAM system following failures on February 15, 2023, overseeing aviation safety and the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act on March 8, 2023, strengthening the aviation workforce on March 16, 2023, enhancing consumer protections and connectivity in air transportation on March 23, 2023, advancing the next generation aviation technologies on March 29, 2023, and addressing close calls to improve aviation safety on November 9, 2023.