Policy

Panel Rebukes United, Other Airlines Over Passenger Treatment

‘Something is clearly broken’

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz testifies before a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing in the Rayburn Building May 2, 2017. United president Scott Kirby appears at right. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster warned the CEO of United Airlines and other industry executives Tuesday that a hearing into their customers’ experiences wouldn’t be pleasant.

Panel members from both parties followed through, blasting United CEO Oscar Munoz and other representatives of American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines. The hearing came after the release of video showing a passenger being forcibly removed from a United flight in early April so the airline could make room for its employees to fly.

“Something is clearly broken when we see passengers being treated the way some of them have been treated on recent flights,” said Shuster, R-Pa. “Regardless of the contractual relationship between the airline and the ticket holder — it’s just common decency and common sense that you don’t treat a person that way, let alone a paying customer.”

Republicans — including Shuster, typically a steadfast supporter of the industry — and Democrats blasted the subdued panel of executives, saying that if the industry doesn’t improve the passenger experience then lawmakers may enact stronger consumer protections related to overbooking, contracts of carriage and law enforcement on planes. 

“I don’t believe in over-burdening our businesses with regulation, or re-regulating industries that have been successfully de-regulated,” Shuster said. “But I shouldn’t have to remind you that Congress will not hesitate to act, whenever necessary, to ensure your customers are treated with the respect they deserve. If we don’t see meaningful results that improve customer service, the next time this committee meets to address this issue, I can assure you, you will not like the outcome.”

Ranking member Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, and Aviation Subcommittee ranking member Rick Larsen of Washington, said they asked the Government Accountability Office to review the federal consumer protections in place at the Department of Transportation and how they’re enforced.

DeFazio also used the occasion to criticize the airlines industry’s goal of spinning off air traffic control operation from the Federal Aviation Administration. That proposal, championed by Shuster, would put too much power in airlines’ hands because they’d control the new nonprofit’s board of directors, he said.

“I think the airline industry needs to focus on getting its own house in order instead of extending its reach to control of our skies,” DeFazio said.

Munoz apologized for the April 9 incident and the airline’s response, telling the committee the initial episode was “a horrible failure,” and his first response to it was “inadequate.” He said a subsequent internal report found four areas where the airline failed: rebooking a flight crew at the last minute, not offering enough compensation for passengers to voluntarily give up a seat, not “empowering” employees to break company policy, and calling law enforcement for a non-safety reason.

The company was working to change its policies, Munoz said. United wouldn’t again call law enforcement if safety or security wasn’t an issue. It would strengthen its training program and allow front-line employees to breach company policies when “common sense” dictates, he said. The airline also announced last week it would no longer book flight crews on full flights at the last minute and bumped its cap on reimbursement for voluntarily giving up a seat to $10,000.

But Munoz and United President Scott Kirby defended the practice of overbooking, saying it rarely results in passengers being required to leave. The April 9 flight from Chicago to Louisville wasn’t oversold, but room had to be made for a flight crew, they said. Selling more than 100 percent of available seats on a flight allows airlines to charge less, they said.

The statements were met with skepticism from Shuster, who said the principles of his pre-congressional business career would dictate “if somebody buys a ticket, they pay for it, they get it.”

DeFazio slammed the practice of overbooking, and United for making $800 million last year on ticket change fees. He praised Southwest Executive Vice President Bob Jordan for that company’s decision to end overbooking beginning May 8. Jordan testified the airline projected the policy would decrease involuntary bumping by 80 percent.

The industry representatives agreed they should shorten and clarify contracts of carriage, which can run dozens of pages in dense language. Consumers often don’t know what their rights are, said William J. McGee, an aviation consultant with the Consumers Union.

Joseph Sprague, Alaska’s senior vice president of external relations, said his company’s goal was to reduce the document to one page. Kirby said that goal was unlikely for his company, but that United would seek to simplify the document.

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