[Excerpt] Mergers, airline bankruptcies, aircraft safety and maintenance concerns, extensive flight delays and cancellations, $100-plus-per-barrel oil prices, and a litany of other issues define congressional interest in the airline industry at present. Congress does not play a day-to-day role in any of these issues. Most ongoing oversight of the industry, to the extent that it does occur, takes place within the executive branch. Congress periodically addresses airline issues through legislation, but for the most part the congressional role occurs primarily through oversight.
The authority to approve or disapprove airline mergers rests entirely with the Department of Justice (DOJ). The Office of the Secretary of Transportation (OST) makes recommendations to DOJ based on its evaluation of the effect of a proposed merger on airline industry competition. Congress has no specific statutory role in the airline merger review and approval process, having legislatively charged the executive branch with that task. Members of Congress can, and do, file statements with DOJ expressing their views on a proposed merger. Congressional interest going forward is likely to focus on the proposed merger between Delta Airlines and Northwest Airlines.
Recent incidents, including passengers being held in aircraft for eight or more hours awaiting takeoff, passengers being stranded by the shutdown of bankrupt air carriers, as well as deteriorating airline on-time arrival performance, have led to increasing congressional interest in airline passenger consumer issues. Currently, most passenger rights are set forth in the airlines’ “contract of carriage” language. Existing law does, however, provide procedures and compensation rules for “bumping” and lost or damaged baggage. The main power the Department of Transportation (DOT) has to protect consumers is the department’s power to take action against air carriers for “deceptive trade practices.”
Despite impressive airline safety statistics in recent years, some aviation safety professionals and some Members of Congress have expressed concern that the industry and regulators have been lulled into complacency with regard to safety. This concern has been heightened recently in response to various findings that airlines have failed to fully comply with aircraft inspections and repairs mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Congressional oversight has focused on the relationship between the FAA and the airlines and the manner in which the FAA carries out its safety mandates.
This report provides an overview of selected airline related issues currently subject to congressional oversight and/or possible legislation. Many of the issues discussed here are also addressed in some fashion as part of the ongoing congressional debate about reauthorization of the FAA. Those seeking additional information on reauthorization should refer to CRS Report RL33920, Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization: An Overview of Selected Provisions in Proposed Legislation. This report will be updated as warranted by events.