5 reasons to care about new FAA law

By Thom Patterson, CNNUpdated 8th February 2012
New FAA legislation offers consumers more information, empowerment and tarmac delay laws.
Did you hear that? It's a door busting open in Washington, unblocking a huge backlog of airline issues that will directly affect America's millions of air travelers.
For the first time since 2007, after 23 extensions, Congress has finally passed a long-term funding bill for the FAA. It costs $63 billion and will last through 2015. President Obama is expected to sign it into law.
For the millions who fly commercial airlines yearly in the United States, here are five reasons why you should care:
1. Airline tarmac delay rules to be the law of the land
Many of the tarmac delay rules for commercial airlines -- like reporting flight delays and cancellations and providing passengers with adequate food, water and ventilation in planes stuck on the tarmac -- will be more than just rules. They'll be the law of the land, backed with the full enforcement and authority of the federal government.
Somehow, not included in the legislation is the three-hour limit on the amount of time planes can remain on the tarmac before they must return to the gate. It's still a regulation. "There's a concern it might lead to more flight cancellations or delays, so it may need more study before it becomes law," said Charlie Leocha of the nonprofit Consumer Travel Alliance.
Consumer advocate group FlyersRights.org blames the exclusion on politics. "House Republicans, in the end, sided with their friends the airlines by forcing removal of the [three-hour tarmac delay limit] in the newly codified law for airline passengers, with total disregard for what's best for the flying public," wrote executive director Kate Hanni in an email to CNN.
2. Investigation into cell phone use on planes
Is there really a good reason why we can't use our phones on planes? The arguments have long raged on both sides. The new law requires a government study within 120 days to look into the issues surrounding aircraft cell phone use. Speaking of studies: Would airlines lose or damage fewer bags if they had to pay for them? The law orders a study, due in 180 days, to find out.
3. Better information about child safety seats, insecticides
Traveling with small children and their safety seats may be a little easier. The new law requires airlines to post on their websites the maximum dimensions of child safety seats that can be used aboard their aircraft. Also, the Department of Transportation must post online a list of countries that force airlines to spray cabins with insecticide.
4. Better access to the halls of power
Airline travelers who feel powerless against the system may like the DOT advisory board created under the new law. The Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protection will include appointed officials from airports, airlines, the government and a member specifically to represent consumers. Also, the law creates a DOT phone line and website for consumers to lodge complaints.
5. High tech air traffic control systems
The legislation clears the way for the FAA's highly anticipated satellite-based air traffic control system, which promises to make air travel more efficient, less air-polluting and less time-consuming. That system, part of a massive air-traffic overhaul called NextGen, is expected to be put into place about 2020.
Other stuff:
-- Federal subsidies for rural airports
The bill trims the embattled $200 million Essential Air Service airport subsidies program, which opponents say is a waste of money. Small rural airports that handle fewer than 10 daily passengers and are less than 175 miles from a major hub airport will no longer qualify for federal operating subsidies. Alaska and Hawaii are exempt from the cuts.
-- Smoking
Fourteen years after smoking was banned on domestic flights for U.S. commercial airlines, the law shuts the door on the last bastion for mile-high smokers. Lighting up will no longer be allowed aboard any charter aircraft or other for-profit flights, foreign or domestic, says Leocha.
-- Special exemptions for military
The law includes a message to the airlines called a Sense of Congress that nudges industry leaders to consider offering special travel exemptions for military members. Congress is hinting that airlines should cut troops a break on airline rules surrounding luggage and traveling family members.
Overall, says Leocha, the new FAA law could end up saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars -- perhaps billions -- "if only for the ability to plan ahead and coordinate projects in the future."