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New regulations coming to an airline near you

With universal heath care sucking all the air out of the Capitol, it's easy to forget Congress is busy working on changes to other parts of your life.

Flying largely under public radar are ideas — some quite contentious — that road warriors and even occasional travelers should keep an eye on:

Airline Passenger Bill of Rights: Code for passengers stuck for hours on planes unable to take off or reach a gate. This provision in the Senate's Federal Aviation Administration funding bill requires that airlines provide adequate food, water and restrooms for people trapped for "excessive periods" in a parked plane.

So, what's the problem? Airlines are dead-set against a requirement to let passengers off a plane after three hours unless it would endanger their safety or security. Also, pilots could extend the deadline 30 minutes if they "reasonably believe" the flight will take off within that time.

Carriers say forcing aircraft to return to the gate would disrupt airport operations and lead to more canceled flights, abandoning travelers far from home. Last year, Airline Passenger Bill of Rights protections were blocked on the Senate floor.

Cell Phones: Who wants to sit for hours beside some stranger arguing loudly with a spouse or gabbing endlessly about, well, anything. House members heard you and put a ban on using cell phones in flight into their FAA bill.

The Federal Communications Commission and FAA prohibit the practice. But the European Union gave airlines the green light last year. Irish ultra-low fare airline Ryanair now charges for midair calls, with more carriers ready to follow suit.

Carriers offering Wi-Fi say their customers oppose introducing cell phones. But the lure of a possibly lucrative, new income stream might prompt airlines to push for a regulatory change. Cynics suggest airlines could even charge extra to sit in special "no cell phone" zones of the cabin.

Airport Tax: Ever wonder about that charge on your ticket that's not federal tax or the security fee? The "passenger facility charge" — PFC in aviation jargon — is a tax airports receive for aviation improvements, such as runways and terminals (but not revenue generators like parking garages).

Most airports, including Tampa International, charge the federally allowed maximum of $4.50 per flight segment. The amount hasn't changed since 2001. Airport operators say collections haven't kept pace with construction costs, and through their trade group pushed to raise the cap to $7.50.

The House agreed to $7. The Senate bill doesn't include any increase. It would create a pilot program to remove the cap at six airports — but only if they collect PFCs from passengers directly instead of through airline ticket sales.

Keep an eye on the fine print.

Airline earnings

Southwest Airlines earned $54 million in the second quarter, down sharply from $321 million a year earlier, while announcing 1,400 employees accepted buyout offers. United Airlines parent UAL Corp. swung to a $28 million profit. Continental Airlines lost $213 million and said it would cut 1,700 more jobs.

New regulations coming to an airline near you 07/21/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 23, 2009 7:19pm]
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