Airplane Seat Sizes, Quick Refunds, Flight Safety: These New Air Travel Rules Have Been Signed Into Law

The newly passed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) bill includes several measures to protect air travelers. Here’s what you need to know.

Rows of empty, dark blue airplane seats in a 3x3 configuration with overhead bins open above

For travelers who are tired of being packed in like sardines, help could be on the way.

Courtesy of JC Gellidon/Unsplash

Airport delays. Air ticket refunds. The size of your airline seat, and those annoying fees for being able to select a specific seat. These and other perennial hot-button items for fliers were among a slew of issues that were addressed in Congress recently, as lawmakers debated provisions in a massive piece of legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the next five years.

The measure’s passage, which had been delayed for almost a year by partisan wrangling, was hailed as a win for consumers by its supporters. In a statement, Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) described it as “the most significant effort by Congress in over a decade to make flying safer, easier and more accessible for passengers with disabilities.”

Now that the bill has been signed into law by President Biden, more details of the 1,000-page doorstopper have emerged. And while on balance there was good news for fliers, not everything that consumer groups sought ended up in the final version.

“Consumers did not get everything we wanted but on balance we’ve seen some things we’ve never seen before [enacted into law],” said William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project. As one example, he cited a provision in the law that would require the U.S. Government Accountability Office to conduct a study of how consolidation has affected competition in the airlines. “Some of us been fighting for these kinds of things for 20 years.“

Here are some of the main highlights of the legislation, the initiatives that could affect air travelers the most.

Automatic refunds

The bill codifies a recent U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) rule requiring airlines to automatically issue refunds to passengers whose flights are canceled or significantly delayed, which it defines as three hours for a domestic flight and six hours for an international trip. This would remove the need for consumers to request a refund, which can take time, but it wouldn’t apply in cases where fliers are offered and accept alternative transportation or travel credits. The requirement would also apply to tickets bought from a third-party seller such as an online travel agency (like Expedia or or travel advisor; the American Society of Travel Agents has asked for the DOT to clarify how this would work, arguing that it could pose a burden to smaller agencies that would have to claw back their payment to the airline.

Minimum seat size

Consumer groups have been fighting for a federal mandate setting minimum standards for airline seats and legroom, arguing that tight seating and crowded flights could impede an evacuation in the case of an emergency. Instead, the bill orders the DOT to revisit seating and evacuation standards and also requires the agency to set up a dashboard so that consumers can compare seating options by airline, similar to the dashboard that DOT set up for air traveler consumer rules.

Fee-free family seating

Families who faced being split up on flights if they didn’t pay up won a victory: Airlines will now be prohibited from charging seat assignment fees to families with children under 14 years old.

Airline vouchers

Future travel credits or vouchers issued to passengers as compensation often have an expiration date of one to two years; the law mandates that these credits remain valid for at least five years.

Customer service

Airlines must make their phone and chat lines available 24/7, free of charge, especially during major disruptions, and without “excessive” hold times.

Accessibility for fliers with disabilities

Airlines and airports have to up their game on accessibility; airline personnel would need to be trained to handle motorized wheelchairs in an effort to reduce the number of wheelchairs that are damaged in transit, and disabled passengers will be allowed to request specific seats. Additionally, the FAA must set up a program to improve accessibility at commercial airports.

Safety improvements

To give air crash investigators an additional tool, the bill specifies that cockpit voice recorders should run for up to 25 hours per journey, up from the current 2-hour duration. Sometimes cockpit recorders are reset as soon as the planes land, which has hindered probes of accidents such as the Alaska air panel blowout. Runway safety was also addressed with more funding for improved warning systems.

Air traffic controller staffing

Staffing shortages at key air traffic control facilities, a serious problem since the airline industry emerged from its pandemic slowdown, have led to major delays in the most congested air travel markets, including New York City. Controller fatigue brought on by working overtime has also been cited as a cause in last year’s rash of near-collisions and other airport mishaps. The law boosts the number of controllers and adds funding for training facilities.

Barbara Peterson is Afar’s special correspondent for air, covering breaking airline news and major trends in air travel. She is author of Blue Streak: Inside JetBlue, the Upstart That Rocked an Industry and is a winner of the Lowell Thomas Award for Investigative Reporting.
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