US government moves to set minimum size for airline seats with new bill

The US House of Representatives voted this Wednesday to direct the federal government to set a minimum size for airline seats, bar passengers from being kicked off overbooked planes, and consider whether to restrict animals on planes.

Those and other passenger-related provisions were included in a bill to authorise Federal Aviation Administration programs for five years. The House approved the measure by a 398-23 vote, sending it to the Senate, which faces a Sunday deadline.

The FAA bill is also notable for what is not included.

Lawmakers abandoned a plan backed by airlines to privatise the nation's air-traffic-control system. And congressional negotiators dropped a proposal to crack down on "unreasonable" airline fees.

The bill includes several provisions backed by consumer groups. Among them:

  • It gives the FAA one year to set minimum measurements for airline seats and the distance between rows. Provision sponsors said cramped planes are a safety issue during emergencies such as fires.

"People are getting larger, the seats are getting smaller, and it's just obvious that you can't evacuate the planes in the requisite time," Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said in an interview.

FILE - In this Jan. 26, 2016, file photo, economy In this photo, economy class seating is shown on a new United Airlines Boeing 787-9 undergoing final configuration and maintenance work at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. (Photo: Ted S. Warren, AP)

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  • Directs the Transportation Department to set rules for service and emotional-support animals on planes including "reasonable measures to ensure pets are not claimed as service animals." Airlines have taken modest steps to crack down on support animals, which they say are surging in numbers and leading to incidents of biting and defecating on planes.
SEE: IATA launches new global certification programme to prevent more animal deaths on planes

  • When a computer outage causes widespread delays and cancellations, the airline must say on its website whether it will help stranded customers with hotel rooms, meals, or seats on another carrier.
  • Bars passengers from making cell phone calls during airline flights.
  • Creates a committee to advise the FAA on how to prevent consumers from being hit with huge and unexpected bills from air-ambulance companies.

FILE - In this June 19, 2015 file photo, DepartmenIn this photo, the Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration building is seen in Washington. The FAA would be required to set new minimum requirements for seats on airplanes under legislation to be considered in the House this week. The regulation of seat width and legroom is part of a five-year extension of federal aviation programs agreed to early Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, by Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate committees that oversee the nation's air travel. (Photo: Andrew Harnik, AP)

Last year, a Senate committee approved a provision directing the Transportation Department to crack down on "unreasonable" airline fees for things like changing a reservation. But airlines and the industry's major trade group, Airlines for America, lobbied fiercely against the proposal, which they said amounted to reregulating airline prices for the first time in 40 years. The issue was dropped last week during final negotiations.

Before that, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., gave up an attempt to weaken a regulation requiring that pilots have at least 1500 hours of flying time before they can fly for an airline. Safety advocates had objected.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Penn., backed away from a plan to shift control of the nation's air-traffic-control system from the FAA to a private corporation. Shuster acknowledged that he didn't have the votes to pass the airline-backed provision.

The FAA's current authority expires Sunday, but Congress could pass a brief extension to give the Senate more time to consider the House-passed bill.

SEE: US aviation authority says there's no need to regulate airline legroom for passenger safety

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