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Lawmakers ask 11 major airlines to justify ‘fee gouging’

Delta Air Lines planes are parked Monday, Aug. 8, 2016, at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, in Washington. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)
By Hugo Martin Los Angeles Times

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

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

The lawmakers demand that the airlines justify all higher fees, 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 that would require airline fees to be “reasonable.” The language would instruct 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-Calif., and Cohen 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 that airlines are raising passenger fees to squeeze revenues while keeping airfares artificially low.

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.”