Congress Wants You to Be Uncomfortable on Flights

Taking cues from airline industry lobbyists, US lawmakers are keeping an aviation bill free from clauses that would require free water for flight passengers and set minimum dimensions for seats. Why do our representatives want airline travel to be torture?

Passengers on a Boeing 737 Max-8 plane during a United Airlines flight departing from Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey, on March 13, 2024. (Bing Guan / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Congressional lawmakers quietly removed language from an aviation bill that would have guaranteed airplane passengers the right to drinking water on flights, according to legislative text reviewed by us.

Lawmakers are also rejecting demands to set minimum seat dimensions, even as airplane seat sizes have shrunk several inches over the past four decades.

The decisions reflected in legislation governing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) follow airlines spending nearly $5 million lobbying Congress in the first four months of the year, according to lobbying disclosures reviewed by us.

In July 2023, the House of Representatives advanced an initial version of bipartisan FAA legislation requiring airlines to provide drinking water to passengers on flights longer than an hour — a basic human need that airlines currently do not legally have to fulfill, even on hours-long flights.

However, the drinking water requirement was stripped from the final version of the legislation released this week by Senator Maria Cantwell and Representative Rick Larsen, both Washington Democrats; Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican; and Representative Sam Graves, a Missouri Republican, who lead their chambers’ transportation oversight committees.

If their bill passes without changes, airline passengers will continue to have no legal right to drinking water on flights, The FAA bill, which provides funding and sets policy guidelines for the FAA for the next five years, may also make it more difficult for passengers to receive refunds for canceled or delayed flights and sidesteps setting minimum standards for seat dimensions — a topic that has irked passengers for decades.

While some airlines voluntarily offer water, many budget airlines do not, and instead charge passengers who ask for it.

“Airlines want to have the freedom to increase charges of any kind without limitation,” said Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights, an airline passenger advocacy group. Hudson added that this lobbying approach has led to the lack of water-access standards.

“There are very few specific requirements that are imposed on airlines when it comes to customer service,” he said.

Representative Shontel Brown, an Ohio Democrat, introduced the drinking water provision into the House version of the FAA reauthorization deal last summer. In a statement after the legislation passed the House in July 2023, Brown said the amendment would ensure “that passengers remain healthy and hydrated on flights.”

Brown’s office did not return a request for comment from us about the policy’s exclusion from the final deal.

Negotiations over the FAA deal dragged on far past its original September 2023 finalization deadline, and lawmakers leading the negotiations announced a final deal on Monday. The legislation still must pass both chambers of Congress, but lawmakers said it has bipartisan support, making significant revisions unlikely.

Although consumer rights advocates have praised some aspects of the bill — like a provision prohibiting airlines from charging fees to seat parents together with their young children — it also handed key wins to the airline industry.

The final deal, for instance, was released just days after the Department of Transportation released a new rule that would force airlines to provide automatic refunds to passengers when their flights are canceled, bypassing the often arduous process currently in place to get refunds. News of the policy brought the Biden Administration praise and drew joyous headlines.

But as we reported, the FAA deal contained a provision that appeared to reject the automatic refund guarantee. A section tucked hundreds of pages into the legislation noted that consumers were owed a refund if their flight was canceled or significantly delayed — but that they had to provide the airline written or electronic notice to get one, essentially putting the onus back on the consumer.

The language was potentially a win for the airline industry, which strongly opposed the new automatic refund rules from the Transportation Department when they were announced. Trade groups for the airlines are already citing the language in the bill to argue that the automatic refund rule should be overturned.

The absence of any standard around drinking water is another win for the industry. Currently, airlines are only required to provide passengers with water when there is a tarmac delay of more than two hours, but not on a cross-country flight, contrary to recommendations by the Aerospace Medical Association, which suggests passengers “drink about 8 ounces of water each hour.”

The reauthorization bill was a key focus for airline lobbying efforts in Washington. Airlines for America — a trade association representing Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, Southwest, and other top airlines in the country — paid five different lobbying firms to sway lawmakers on the reauthorization bill, and other topics, federal disclosures show.

So far this year, Airlines for America spent more than $1.4 million lobbying Congress, the Transportation Department, the FAA, and other regulators on the FAA Reauthorization bill, among other topics.

Dozens of individual airlines — including Delta, United, and JetBlue — also lobbied this year on the legislation and other matters.

“A Long Saga of Resistance”

Congress also balked at establishing guidelines for minimum airplane seat dimensions in the current legislation, an irksome topic for many passengers as seats have slowly shrunk over the past few decades. Today, seats on the top domestic airlines — American, Delta, Southwest, and United — have cut passengers’ legroom by roughly two to five inches and reduced seat widths by two inches since the 1980s.

In the last FAA reauthorization bill in 2018, Congress directed the FAA to establish rules on minimum seat dimensions “that are necessary for passenger safety.” The agency issued a request for comment on a proposed rule on the subject in 2022, but a final rule has yet to be established.

Cure SMA, an advocacy organization for people with spinal muscular atrophy, lobbied on seat dimensions and other issues in 2022. In a comment letter to the FAA, the group urged the agency to consider establishing larger seat dimensions.

“Larger seat dimensions and seat pitch on aircrafts would make it safer for individuals with [spinal muscular atrophy] and the passengers around them to evacuate in an emergency,” the group wrote. “The small seat pitch creates a bottleneck during the regular deplaning process and could be very problematic in an emergency, when every second matters. This can also be uncomfortable for the passenger with a disability and the other passengers in the row.”

The group also said that the FAA and airlines need to more thoroughly consider the needs of passengers with wheelchairs.

But airline groups have lobbied against any attempt to improve standards for airplane seats. Airlines for America has spent more than $7.2 million lobbying on seat dimensions and other issues since 2023, disclosures show.

Airlines for America and the International Air Transport Association — an industry group representing more than three hundred airlines — wrote to the FAA in 2022 urging the regulator not to establish minimum standards for seats.

“We respectfully disagree with the underlying premise that a rulemaking is required, as Congress stated the FAA shall only issue regulations that establish minimum dimensions for passenger seats that are ‘necessary for the safety of passengers,’” the groups wrote in 2022. “The FAA has done and continues to conduct extensive review and research on evacuation standards, and there is no factual or data predicate that supports promulgating additional rules concerning aircraft seat dimensions.”

The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2024 directs the FAA to initiate a “rulemaking activity, on minimum seat sizes but does not require the agency to establish a rule on the matter.

“If the Administrator decides not to pursue the rulemaking . . . the Administrator shall brief appropriate committees of Congress on the justification of such decision,” the proposed bill states.

Hudson with FlyersRights has been advocating for larger seats since 2015 and sued the FAA in 2022 seeking to force the agency to set minimum dimensions. A Washington, DC–based circuit court judge ruled that FlyersRights failed to establish a clear connection between small seats and adverse health effects, such as blood clots. Hudson said he asked Congress to eliminate ambiguities around setting minimum seat standards in the 2024 FAA reauthorization bill, but Congress failed to provide clarity.

“Instead [Congress] simply put another provision in asking the FAA to take another look at this, and if they didn’t like it, to report to Congress why they didn’t do anything with seat standards,” Hudson said. “It’s been a long saga of resistance by the FAA and the airlines to have any kind of seat standards.”

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Katya Schwenk is a journalist based in Phoenix, Arizona.

Freddy Brewster is a freelance reporter and has been published in the Los Angeles Times, NBC News, CalMatters, the Lost Coast Outpost, and other outlets across California.

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