Spirit bare fare text as livery on the side of the bright yellow aircraft engine

House expressed PaxEx concerns before airlines sought economic relief

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Shortly before the coronavirus crisis became fully evident in the United States and airlines sought economic relief, the US House of Representatives was examining the status quo and future of the airline passenger experience (PaxEx).

The public’s comments tended to focus on baggage charges, change fees and legroom. Those were of interest to lawmakers, but they also had a wider spectrum of concerns regarding everything from outsourced work and discrimination to accessibility and passenger complaint tracking.

The representatives were not unified on a single issue, but their message was that even if aviation is a privatized industry, it is an economic catalyst that should be achieving more for the greater good.

First, the populist measures. “Discontent among airline travelers has been increasing and it’s for a good reason,” said Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee). “When it comes to unreasonable airline fees, the airlines have gone beyond imaginable levels.”

Cohen sponsored H.R.5195, the FAIR Fees Act which prohibits “unreasonable or disproportional” charges and directs the Department of Transportation (DOT) to establish standards.

He credited Spirit Airlines for being upfront about financially relying on ancillaries, but questioned why the fee varies based on time of purchase. Spirit Airlines CCO Matt Klein, the only airline representative in attendance, defended the practice, saying Spirit offered a “discount” to passengers who buy ancillaries at the time of purchase. Variable and dynamic pricing is a larger consumer issue, but this was unmentioned during the hearing.

Spirit, which voluntarily attended the hearing on invite from the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), was also given props for ensuring that most of its aircraft have accessible lavatories for passengers with reduced mobility. Klein was asked why the rest of the industry has not moved so fast. “I don’t think it’s smart for me to speculate on what other airlines may be choosing for their product,” Klein said with a grin. “There is some expense involved,” he said earlier.

Representatives sought connections between airlines’ outsourcing measures and negative employee-passenger interactions. “Unless you address the outsourcing issue, it’s very hard to address the training issues,” Consumer Reports aviation consultant William McGee said. “What many customers have no idea is these are people in the front lines interfacing with customers at airports. They may even be wearing airline uniforms but they are not airline employees.”

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Maintenance was another outsourcing topic. APEX CEO Joe Leader said he expected more US-based maintenance: “The economics of continuously outsourcing labor to aircraft that are primarily based in the United States does not make economic sense given the cost to ferry aircraft elsewhere.”

Spirit has a small ferry cost for maintenance work undertaken in Puerto Rico, which Klein saw not as purely cost-cutting. “It’s the decision we made to help support the territory there,” he said.

Representatives expressed concern about evacuation times in the era of less legroom, more service animals and a greater temptation for passengers to grab carryon luggage during evacuations.

The House also sought improvements for certain passengers. McGee called out the DOT for not taking seriously enough airlines refusing to seat families together without charge. McGee noted the lax approach compared to strict seating requirements for unaccompanied minors.

“For all intents and purposes, if I’m the parent and I’m in row 12 and my six-year-old is in row 18, that child is an unaccompanied minor,” McGee said. The issue extends beyond families. “We heard that many corporate travelers don’t want the responsibility of sitting next to a young child … ensure the child’s welfare with oxygen masks, with evacuations.”

While Representatives wanted greater oversight in some areas, elsewhere they were less interested in interfering. “I understand the competitiveness and why you have to have smaller seat space,” Representative John Kato (R-New York) said. “I got it.”

Representative Garret Graves (R-Louisiana) recounted how at New Orleans airport, expanding aviation access (including to nonticketed passengers) – the committee’s goal – may bring different, yet acceptable passenger experiences.

“Every time I walk in the Spirit area of the airport, it is absolutely the people that are there for tourism, that are there having a good time, in many cases still out from the night before, but that’s fine,” said Graves.

Airlines are now asking for federal assistance in the wake of the coronavirus downturn. There is no shortage of suggestions from consumers and unions for conditions and business model stipulations. We might call this “no using taxation without representation.” Will regulators act?

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