(Update: After this article was published, I heard from the largest union representing flight attendants about their reaction to the biggest surprises in this law.)
There's giant news out of Washington today that will radically affect life for airline passengers, flight attendants, and other employees. And it has nothing to do with that "other" big Washington story--the one about the Supreme Court.
Instead, this is about the Federal Aviation Administration bill that President Trump signed into law a little before 3 p.m. Friday--just before the moment when everyone else in Washington was watching a key senator's speech about Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
To be clear, there's no suggestion that the White House intentionally picked a time when people weren't paying attention to sign the bill. This law had passed Congress with overwhelming support, and industry players and airline lobbyists have been watching it like hawks for a long time.
But it is striking, given that Congress passed this bill at literally 2:52 in the morning on a Saturday two weeks ago, that it would also be signed at the White House in relative obscurity.
It seems very few people even noticed. I knew about it only because I'd emailed the White House asking for an update on the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 earlier in the day.
The story of this law has been dominated largely by what isn't in it: no restrictions on what airlines can charge for baggage or change fees. But it still changes a lot of things. Here's a quick summary of what's included.
You'll notice that some of these new laws are the direct result of some viral incidents that happened on planes in the last year or two. The new law:
- prohibits airlines from "bumping" passengers who've already boarded a plane;
- requires the FAA to set minimum standards for seat width and seat pitch;
- establishes minimum standards for how much rest time flight attendants get between shifts;
- makes it illegal to store a dog or other animal in an overhead bin;
- prohibits passengers from using mobile phones to make voice calls during flight;
- bans e-cigarettes from planes;
- requires airlines to refund passengers for "services they paid for but did not receive";
- mandates that airlines allow passengers to check strollers if they are traveling with small children;
- requires the government to look into whether it's "unfair or deceptive" when airlines say flights are delayed due to weather if there are actually other factors involved.
- lets the FAA require airlines to let pregnant women board airplanes first;
- creates a task force to study sexual harassment and misconduct among airline employees;
- increases the penalties for interfering with cabin crew or flight crew;
- requires the FAA to consider whether to allow supersonic airplanes over the continental U.S.;
- allows the Justice Department, Homeland Security, and other federal law enforcement agencies to hack or shoot down privately owned drones if they deem them a threat;
- requires the FAA to work on regulations to allow "regular flights of package-delivery drones," as Amazon wants to do;
- authorizes $1.68 billion for relief for Hurricane Florence, which hit the Carolinas last month;
- requires the FAA to set up an "Office of Spaceports"; and
- tells the FAA to set up an "aviation consumer advocate," so that when you have something bad happen to you on an airplane, and you don't know who to tell, you'll have at least have someone to complain to.