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Lawmakers Face Pressure To Enforce Automatic Refunds for Flight Disruptions  

Amid rising tensions over airline accountability, consumer advocacy groups are making a strong push for Congress to endorse regulations that would ensure automatic refunds for passengers affected by canceled or significantly delayed flights.

This issue came to the forefront following the Transportation Department’s recent announcement of a rule mandating quick, automatic reimbursements for disrupted travelers — a move President Joe Biden actively supported on social media platforms.

However, a contentious phrase within a massive 1,069-page Senate bill, currently under debate, proposes that airlines are only required to issue refunds following a “written or electronic request of the passenger.” 

This stipulation has sparked concern among consumer advocates who argue that the responsibility for refunds should not fall on passengers, many of whom may be unaware of their rights or the procedures to claim refunds.

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William McGee from the American Economic Liberties Project highlighted the challenge, pointing out the low likelihood of passengers knowing how to initiate refund claims, resulting in significant sums that airlines never return. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren echoed this sentiment, criticizing the proposed bill’s language as overly favorable to airlines, which could exploit the bureaucratic hurdles to minimize refund payouts.

The contentious language was initially introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell last June in a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill. 

Despite attempts to remove the clause, it survived committee scrutiny under Cantwell’s leadership.

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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has defended the Department’s authority to enforce the rule for automatic refunds, but John Breyault from the National Consumers League expressed concerns that the bill’s language might enable airlines to challenge this rule in court.

Lobbying against automatic refunds, Airlines for America, representing major U.S. carriers, has argued for alternatives like rebooking passengers or offering frequent-flyer points before issuing monetary refunds. 

This stance is part of the broader airline industry’s resistance to regulatory impositions on their operations.

Apart from the refund issue, the FAA bill, valued at $105 billion, is poised to introduce several consumer-friendly provisions. 

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It proposes to triple the fines for airlines that violate consumer rights, mandates accommodations to allow families to sit together without extra charges, and extends the validity of airline vouchers to at least five years. 

The bill also aims to solidify the definitions of significant flight delays, setting the threshold at three hours for domestic flights and six for international ones.

However, not all consumer demands have been met, such as minimum seat sizes and enhanced government oversight on airline scheduling and fees.

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The legislation also addresses safety improvements by permitting an increase in the number of air traffic controllers and safety inspectors. 

It includes plans to equip more airports with advanced technology to prevent runway collisions, a response to recent near-miss incidents at several U.S. airports.

As debates continue, the outcome of this legislation will significantly influence airline operations and passenger rights, marking a critical juncture in aviation policy amidst ongoing discussions about consumer protection and industry regulation.

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