United CEO apologizes before Congress as lawmakers threaten rules changes
Lawmakers let airline executives know how much they fly (a lot) and how unhappy they are with them (very) during Tuesday’s congressional hearing on airline customer service.
Members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure grilled executives from United, American, Southwest, and Alaska airlines, criticizing practices such as overbooking and bumping passengers from planes, change fees, and even delays on the tarmac. The hearing follows a slew of controversies involving airline workers and passengers, which have prompted some lawmakers to consider overhauling customer service policies.
“If we don’t see meaningful results that improve customer service the next time this committee meets to address the issue, I can assure you, you won’t like the outcome,” Chairman Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, said. While he generally opposes regulating industries, Shuster said, Congress “will not hesitate to act” to ensure constituents are treated with the “respect they deserve.”
United CEO Oscar Munoz again apologized for the April 9 incident in which a passenger, Dr. David Dao, was violently dragged off of a plane in Chicago after he refused to give up his seat. Munoz said United has adjusted its policies as a result, and will now limit the use of law enforcement to security issues only.
“Unless safety or security [is] an issue, we will never again ask a customer to give up their seat once they’re on board,” he said, adding that in overbooked situations, volunteers will be given an incentive up to $10,000 to take another flight.
American Airlines executive Kerry Philipovitch made similar commitments, saying the airline won’t involuntarily remove a passenger who is already on the plane to accommodate another passenger.
“We have not established an upper limit on what we will pay to solicit volunteers, and have entrusted our team to make the best decisions to serve our customers,” she said in her testimony. American came under fire last week after a flight attendant took a stroller from a passenger with children and then argued with other passengers. The airline said the attendant had been suspended.
Such high-profile incidents have already prompted lawmakers to propose new legislation with rules similar to those laid out by Munoz. Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, and Florida Rep. Neal Dunn, a Republican, have separately proposed bills that would prevent airlines from removing passengers from their seats, The Hill reported. There’s also the proposed TICKETS (Transparency, Improvements and Compensation to Keep Every Ticketholder Safe) Act and the BOARD (Bumping on Overbooked Airplanes Requires Dealing) Fairly Act.
William J. McGee, an aviation consultant for the Consumers Union, testified to the committee that airline mergers and industry deregulation have made the industry too concentrated and without enough competition, leaving customers with fewer choices and higher fares. He said this allows airlines to disregard passengers’ interests.
“We are calling for a consistent, uniform, comprehensive, clearly written set of passenger rights for U.S. airlines,” he said. “What we cannot do is continue to leave it to the airlines to decide what rights they will confer in their contracts of carriage.”