Congress approved legislation on Wednesday that reauthorizes the Federal Aviation Administration for five years.
The legislation bars in-flight cellphone calls as well as the forcible removal of passengers. But perhaps more important is what is not in the bill. There are no new rules on airlines’ fees for reservation changes or bags and there is no move to privatize air traffic control.
Part of the bill requires the F.A.A. to determine within a year the minimum distance between seats by studying how quickly people can safely evacuate different airplane configurations. Most airlines in the United States currently put 30 inches of space between rows in economy class, though some no-frills airlines like Spirit put only 28 inches between seats.
“If they come up with a minimum seat regulation, that minimum will mirror the minimum in the market today,” said Samuel Engel, the senior vice president for aviation at the consulting group ICF. “So it won’t make things better.”
The legislation was already approved by the House last month, and the Senate passed it on Wednesday by a vote of 93 to 6. The F.A.A. has been operating without long-term authorization since 2017. Congress has granted a series of temporary extensions for the last year.
“A real five-year bill is vastly, vastly more stable than a series of extensions,” Mr. Engel said. “It removes quite a bit of uncertainty about the shape of the law for the next five years.” He added, “As long as you’re in that series of extensions, important projects get put on hold.”
The airlines’ trade group, Airlines for America, also noted that the five-year reauthorization “provides long-term certainty” for the industry.
As to any added protections for travelers, Mr. Engel said: “The things in the bill that look like wins for consumers are really just for show. What are the so-called consumer protections in the bill? They are: You can’t talk on your cellphone. You can’t do that anyway. You can’t put your dog in the overhead. That’s not a daily problem.”
One section of the bill bars airlines from forcibly removing seated passengers if the flight is overbooked. But traveler advocates said that was a continuation of the status quo. “The provision that you can’t be bumped once you’re on an airplane has been the custom since the Dr. Dao incident, but now it’s the law,” said Paul Hudson, president of Flyers Rights, a passenger advocacy group. He was referring to a situation in April 2017 when David Dao, a pulmonologist, was injured while being forcibly removed from an overbooked United Airlines flight, even though he had bought a ticket for the flight.
Flyers Rights was also one of the main advocates for getting the F.A.A. to regulate economy seat size. But Mr. Hudson seemed concerned about the possible outcome of the study.
“We hope it goes one way but we’re cautiously wondering if it will wind up where it is now,” he said in an interview. Even if the F.A.A. does ultimately decide to give passengers more room, he said it could take a long time before most travelers see any changes. “There’s a history with the F.A.A. of delaying regulations, grandfathering regulations or granting waivers or exemptions.”
Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel industry analysis firm in San Francisco, said he, too, did not expect much improvement. “As much as I would personally like to see more legroom in economy, as an analyst I recognize that the airlines are going to turn around and say that the flights are going to get more expensive,” he said. “Be prepared to pay more for your ticket.”
He did note that the legislation includes “minimum rest time for flight attendants for the first time, which is going to increase safety.”
Mr. Harteveldt and Mr. Engel both said that some of the most important aspects of the bill are things Congress declined to address.
“Because the airlines successfully lobbied against having the bill include regulations against baggage and ticket change fees, that was removed,” Mr. Harteveldt said, pointing out that passengers had hoped for possible regulation or elimination of some ancillary charges.
In Mr. Engel’s view, Congress chose to punt on one major issue.
“Once again, the U.S. is declining to corporatize the F.A.A.,” he said, explaining that other countries have successfully privatized air traffic control. Those companies can then plan their finances over longer periods, making the air traffic control systems more stable and adaptable. “That’s particularly disappointing because it really was a stated objective of the Trump administration.”