Chair Cantwell Calls for a ‘Passenger Bill of Rights’ and More Rural Flights in Committee Hearing on Aviation

Cantwell on junk fees, murky refund processes, and shrinking airline seats: We need “a better deal for the U.S. consumer”; WA airport director testifies: Daily flights in Wenatchee down from four to one

WASHINGTON D.C. –  Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, led a hearing focused on protecting commercial aviation consumers and called for a new “Passenger Bill of Rights” in the forthcoming reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that would strengthen refund rules, eliminate junk fees, establish a minimum seat size, and make it easier for families to sit together on a flight.

“In this year’s FAA reauthorization, I hope we can work together on a new Passenger Bill of Rights that gets a better deal for the U.S. consumer,” Sen. Cantwell said in her opening remarks. “We must take down the hurdles to getting your money back when you don’t receive the service you paid for. Any travel credits accepted in lieu of refunds should never expire: that’s your money, and should be in your bank account.”

“Congress must end unfair and hidden fees known as ‘junk fees’ that are taking real money out of the pockets of Americans. We should force the rebooking fees when your flight is cancelled or delayed by the airline itself to end and stop that practice.  We should make sure that families aren’t charged just for sitting next to each other,” she continued. “Congress gave the FAA the specific task of establishing what is a minimum seat size for airlines. The FAA has failed to take action on this. And this Committee should help resolve that issue.”

Sen. Cantwell and the Committee also heard testimony from Trent Moyers, director of the Pangborn Memorial Airport in Wenatchee, Wash., about the challenges faced by rural airports after airlines rolled back their service due to COVID-19.

Pre-pandemic, Moyers said, Wenatchee’s airport served 64,000 passengers per year. Last year, enplanements fell to 35,000.

“Service in Wenatchee and in many small airports has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, largely due to a lack of airline capacity. The number of daily flights to our airport has gone from four in recent years down to one. The post-pandemic recovery of air service continues to be challenging Wenatchee, but we know we're not alone,” Moyers said. “Today 76% of airports have less air service than before the pandemic, 14 U.S. airports have lost all commercial air service, and 53 airports like ours have lost over half of their flights.”

Moyers called on the Committee to include incentives for airlines to better serve rural areas in upcoming legislation to reauthorize the FAA.

“If adequate incentives that are attractive to airlines and supportive of the communities they serve are available, the likelihood of successful airline recruitment improves,” Moyers said. “For someone who manages a small airport, the correlation between airport improvement programs and air service development and retention programs is clear.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization bill will provide funding levels and operating authority for the FAA and related aviation programs within the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of the Secretary, including the Office of Aviation Consumer Protection and the Essential Air Service program. Based on a five-year cycle, the FAA bill will include a host of critical new authorities and responsibilities on a broad range of aviation issues including enhancing safety, integrating new entrant operations, developing the aviation workforce, protecting consumers, improving infrastructure, and enabling innovation.

Sen. Cantwell has been a vocal advocate for stronger consumer protections for air passengers. Following the 2022 Southwest Airlines holiday flight cancellations that stranded millions of passengers nationwide, Sen. Cantwell called on the COO of Southwest Airlines to testify before the committee to clarify the number of tickets cancelled and amount of reimbursements Southwest fulfilled. Prior to the Southwest hearing, Sen. Cantwell held a virtual roundtable with five Washington state residents who were impacted by flight cancellations or struggled to receive reimbursements.

Sen. Cantwell has continued to press Southwest Airlines and sent a letter demanding additional information about the refunds provided to customers impacted during the holiday travel disruptions.

Video of Sen. Cantwell’s opening statement is available HERE, audio HERE, and a transcript HERE.

Video of Trent Moyers’ opening statement is available HERE, audio HERE, and a transcript HERE.

Video of Sen. Cantwell’s Q&A portion is available HERE, and transcript HERE.