March 23, 2023

Ranking Members Larsen, Cohen Statements from FAA Reauthorization Hearing on Passenger Experience

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Rick Larsen (D-WA) and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Aviation Steve Cohen (D-TN), during today’s hearing titled, “FAA Reauthorization: Navigating the Comprehensive Passenger Experience.”
Video of Larsen’s and Cohen’s opening statements can be found here and here

More information on the hearing can be found here.
Ranking Member Larsen:
Thank you, Chairman Graves, for calling today’s FAA Reauthorization hearing on “Navigating the Comprehensive Passenger Experience.”
Today, we’re here to discuss ways to improve the passenger experience.  
This includes preventing future flight disruptions, investing in the airport infrastructure needed to accommodate the ever-growing demand for air travel and ensuring we strengthen policies designed to support all passengers, including those with disabilities, have a safe a dignified travel experience.
Just three years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the globe, causing air travel to plummet and massive disruptions throughout the U.S. aviation industry. 
According to the Transportation Security Administration, U.S. passenger screening levels fell as much as 90% in 2020 compared to similar periods in 2019. This was by far the sharpest traffic decline in aviation history.
Fortunately, the demand for air travel rebounded much stronger than anyone could have anticipated.
In 2022, more than 850 million people travelled on scheduled air carriers, an increase of more than 50% from 2020.
While we celebrate the return to air travel, the dramatic and unanticipated rebound created its own set of problems.
Many commercial airlines were ill-prepared for the sudden spike in demand, which created staffing and operational challenges that led to more than 2.5% of scheduled flights cancelled with at least another 22.5% delayed by at least 15 minutes between June and August of 2022.
The shutdown of FAA’s training academy for air traffic controllers during the pandemic also led to staffing challenges, further contributing to some of the widespread disruptions seen in recent years. 
Additionally, the recent Notice to Air Mission (NOTAM) outage this January and the unprecedented number of Southwest Airlines cancellations last December, show how other factors, such as insufficient planning, outdated technologies and severe weather, can make our national airspace system vulnerable to widespread disruptions.
That is why in the wake of the Southwest cancellations last December, I, along with 25 of my Democratic colleagues on this committee, sent a letter to the Department of Transportation (DOT) urging more action to protect consumers against future disruptions and ensure each affected consumer is made whole.
Stranded passengers should never have to decide between paying potentially exorbitant fees to rebook another flight or missing valuable time with family and friends.
Furthermore, in the aftermath of the NOTAM outage, I joined Chairman Graves and 120 of our colleagues in sending a letter to the DOT demanding answers as to why the NOTAM system failed and urging the FAA to take immediate action to ensure the stability of the NOTAM system.
To enhance the passenger experience, we must address the root causes of these mass disruptions to help prevent them from occurring and ensure passengers are made whole when they do.
But we can’t optimize the passenger experience without addressing the infrastructure needed to accommodate them.
The FAA’s current forecast predicts passenger traffic will increase roughly 2% year over the next 20 years.
In the Puget Sound region, the number of airline passengers is expected to grow from 24 million in 2018 to as high as 55.6 million by 2050.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided $25 billion for airport infrastructure, a historic investment that will allow airports to modernize and expand their terminals, reduce congestion and address the anticipated rise in passengers. Yet, more still needs to be done.

To enhance the passenger experience, we must address the root causes of these mass disruptions to help prevent them from occurring and ensure passengers are made whole when they do.

I look forward to hearing from Mr. Kevin Dolliole, Director of Aviation for the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, about how Congress can best enable airports to meet growing passenger needs.
As we consider how to bolster the passenger experience in the upcoming FAA reauthorization bill, we must ensure we consider all passengers, including those with disabilities.
The latest U.S. Census estimates 42.6 million Americans have a disability, with many having mobility issues.
Last November, this Subcommittee held a hearing to better understand this community’s air travel experience, including challenges with boarding the aircraft, inaccessible lavatories, and damaged wheelchairs and mobility aids. 
To enhance the passenger experience, we must ensure air travel is accessible, safe and dignified for all passengers.
I look forward to hearing from Mr. Lee Page with the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) about these issues and how Congress can work with stakeholders to help fill in the gaps in aviation accessibility. 
In the upcoming FAA reauthorization, this committee must examine all aspects of the passenger experience, from ensuring consumers are fully protected against flight disruptions, to improving the transparency of fees and other airline policies, to expanding airport capacity to accommodate the growth of future travelers.  
My thanks again to today’s witnesses. I look forward to identifying ways Congress can ensure all passengers have a safe, comfortable and dignified travel experience. 
Ranking Member Cohen:
As we kick off our third FAA reauthorization hearing, I appreciate the Subcommittee’s attention and prioritization of the passenger experience.
The 2018 FAA reauthorization law included more than 40 provisions to improve the airline passenger experience.
We established a consumer complaints hotline, created an Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights, and required the review of airline cancellations, delays and involuntary changes to passenger itineraries.
We also included my bill, the SEAT Act, which required the FAA to establish minimum dimensions for passenger seats on airplanes to protect the safety of the flying public.
To date, the FAA has still not promulgated its final rule, and I remain concerned that we will continue to see airline seats shrink to all passengers’ detriment.
While the 2018 FAA law made some incremental progress, I believe it will be made resoundingly clear today that there is much more work to be done to enhance the passenger experience, particularly for those with disabilities.
Approximately 27 million passengers with disabilities travel by air, and yet more than three decades after the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Air Carrier Access Act were signed into law, air travel continues to be riddled with unnecessary obstacles, challenges, and discrimination.
From untrained staff at the ticket counter, to lost or damaged mobility aids, such as powered wheelchairs, to passenger injuries, disability-related complaints during air travel are on the rise.
According to a 2022 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, the DOT received 1,394 disability-related complaints in 2021, which was a more than 157%increase from the 541 complaints received in 2020.
We must do more to improve the air travel experience of passengers with disabilities.
That is why I am working with Senator Tammy Duckworth, Chair of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee, on multiple bills to prioritize accountability and accessibility for aviation consumers, and empower passengers who use mobility aids such as manual or powered wheelchairs.
Additionally, with a rebound in passenger demand, we’re seeing increased cancellations and delays by airlines.
In 2022, we experienced the highest cancellation rate in a decade, while the on-time arrival rate decreased to 77%.
There is absolutely no reason why consumers whose flights are cancelled or significantly delayed should be forced to jump through hoops to claim their rightful cash refund.
That is why I am working with Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal on our Cash Refunds for Flight Cancellations Act to restore fairness and accountability to Americans’ air travel experiences.
Finally, we’re also being outpaced by increasing infrastructure needs at our airports.
We’ve made progress on our infrastructure needs through the new Airport Terminal Program, which was created by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
In its first two years, this program has awarded almost $2 billion to airports across the country, including $14 million to the Memphis International Airport to modernize its ticketing and baggage areas.
As we’ll hear today, though, there is much more work to be done to continue to modernize our infrastructure and meet passengers’ expectations.
I look forward to hearing from our esteemed witnesses and welcome the opportunity to work together on these important issues.