WASHINGTON — With the United States now dominated by four major airlines, Senate Democrats on Wednesday waged an unsuccessful effort to let federal regulators decide whether airlines were charging unreasonable fees for checked bags, ticket changes and seat assignments.

“Unfortunately, airline fees have climbed as high as the planes the passengers are traveling on, and we must stop their rapid ascent,” said Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who sought to amend the reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration that later was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee.

Markey pointed to a report done by Sen. Bill Nelson, Fla., the committee’s ranking Democrat, that said baggage and change fees grew from $464 million in 2007 to $3.5 billion in 2014.

“My amendment puts a stop to this passenger gouging,” Markey said.

Nelson weighed in to support the amendment, saying that a change fee five months before an intended flight should be minimal in contrast to one levied the week of the flight.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said, “There are way too many routes in this country where there is no competition – and when there is no competition, there is bad behavior. I’d like to send the airlines a message that we’re paying attention to bad behavior,” McCaskill said. “The flying public is really upset here. And in case anybody hasn’t noticed, populism is in this year. The pitchforks are out.”


The bill that Markey was attempting to amend already includes a stipulation that the airlines be more transparent in telling passengers what fees to expect. But Markey’s amendment to let the FAA decide what level of fees were reasonable failed on a tie party-line vote.

“I don’t think having the Department of Transportation decide what is reasonable or unreasonable is a correct route to go,” said committee chairman Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

Nelson also dumped ice water on a proposal that would transfer about 80 percent of the FAA’s workforce to a nonprofit corporation.

He doused that notion in opening remarks at the hearing. Unlike a House proposal, the Senate bill contains no provision to move about 38,000 air traffic controllers and other FAA workers to a federally chartered nonprofit. The House, which has not taken floor action on a bill approved by its Transportation Committee, may be waiting to see if its Senate colleagues warm up to the proposal.

Nelson’s answer would be a flat “no.”

“There has been continuing chatter coming from the House that somehow there will be a change of hearts and minds when it comes to our side of the aisle in supporting this idea of privatizing,” he said Wednesday. “I don’t believe that’s going to happen.”

The bill approved by the committee continues the FAA’s authority to operate through Oct. 1, 2017. That authority is due to expire on March 31. The House has introduced legislation to extend the end-of-the-month deadline until July 15 while both chambers work on finalizing a longer-term reauthorization.

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