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Lawmakers ask 11 major airlines to justify 'fee gouging'

Lawmakers ask 11 major airlines to justify 'fee gouging'
A traveler gathers his luggage at the San Francisco International Airport. Washington lawmakers have written 11 airlines, asking to justify higher passenger fees. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

The news that JetBlue and United Airlines have raised fees for checked bags and some flight cancellations has provoked the ire of two U.S. senators and a congressman who are calling for “relief from this fee gouging.”

Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) wrote to 11 U.S. carriers last week, including JetBlue, United, Delta and American, asking if they had plans to raise any more fees.

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The lawmakers are demanding that the airlines justify all fee hikes, saying recent increases don’t seem to be tied to any “appreciable increase in the cost of the services provided that may justify these higher fees.”

The federal government deregulated airlines 40 years ago to lower the cost of and increase access to air transportation, and got out of the business of setting fares and deciding routes. But lawmakers still have some leverage to regulate carriers through legislation to fund the Federal Aviation Administration.

Markey, Blumenthal and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) added language in the latest FAA funding bill requiring that airline fees be “reasonable.” The language instructs the Department of Transportation to draft regulations to force airlines to achieve that standard but does not specify how it would be enforced.

A version of the FAA funding bill was passed by the House in April. A Senate version has yet to come to a vote.

In previous funding bills, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), former Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Los Angeles) and Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) have tried unsuccessfully to introduce amendments calling for the FAA to adopt minimum seat sizes.

The letter from the three lawmakers regarding the latest fee increases comes a week after JetBlue raised the fee for the first checked bag to $30 from $25 and for the second bag to $40 from $35 for travelers booking the cheapest fares.

JetBlue also raised its fee to change or cancel some flights to $200 from $150. A few days later, United Airlines also increased its checked bag fees to $30 from $25 for the first bag and to $40 from $35 for the second bag.

In the letter, Markey, Blumenthal and Cohen say they suspect airlines are raising passenger fees to squeeze revenues while keeping airfares artificially low.

Asked to respond, Alison McAfee, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, the trade group for the nation’s airlines, said: “To the extent that fees or other surcharges help airlines generate more revenues or avoid costs for services that some passengers may not value, they help overcome an economic climate in which costs are rising steadily, as they are today.”

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