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US Lawmakers Eye Airline Legislation, Citing 'Terrible' Experiences

US Lawmakers Eye Airline Legislation, Citing 'Terrible' Experiences
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Tuesday, 02 May 2017 02:55 PM

Angry U.S. lawmakers threatened United Airlines and other carriers on Tuesday with legislation to force improvements as they expressed disgust after a passenger was hauled down the aisle of an overbooked flight last month.

The tense House of Representatives committee hearing signaled how Congress might respond to rising consumer anger over cost-cutting by airlines that boiled over after David Dao, 69, was violently dragged from a United flight at a Chicago airport on April 9 to make room for crew members.

Most lawmakers fly back and forth to Washington each week, and took the opportunity to recount in detail the kinds of frustrations customers routinely face, including complicated booking systems, confusing fees, long waits and unexplained flight delays.

"We all know it's a terrible experience," said Representative Michael Capuano, a Democrat from Massachusetts, throwing his arms in the air in frustration. "Some charge fees for baggage, some charge fees for oxygen, who knows?"

The White House has not weighed in on whether new rules are needed to respond to airline customer service issues.

Republicans, who control Congress, largely back President Donald Trump's push to cut rules and regulations they say hamper business growth. But they said, without offering specifics, that they would not hesitate to clamp down on airlines.

"If airlines don't get their act together, we are going to act; it is going to be one size fits all," said Bill Shuster, chairman of the House of Representatives' transportation committee.

"Seize this opportunity because if you don't, we're going to come, and you're not going to like it," Shuster said.

Members of Congress excoriated chief executives from Toyota Motor Corp in 2010 and General Motors Co in 2014 after those automakers admitted mishandling vehicle safety defects. But no significant legislation was passed after the hearings.


United CEO Oscar Munoz apologized repeatedly in the often-tense hearing room for the removal of Dao, with whom the airline reached a settlement last week for an undisclosed sum.

"In that moment for our customers and our company we failed, and so as CEO, at the end of the day, that is on me," Munoz told lawmakers.

"This has to be a turning point."

Munoz was joined at the hearing by United President Scott Kirby and executives from American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.

American Airlines experienced its own black eye last month when a video went viral showing a woman in tears holding her young child after a fight with a flight attendant over a baby stroller.

"Clearly what happened was wrong," said Kerry Philipovitch, the airline's senior vice president of customer experience.

United has changed its policies by reducing overbooked flights and offering passengers who give up their seats up to $10,000. The airline has promised to no longer call on law enforcement officers to deny ticketed passengers their seats except in situations involving security or safety.

But Munoz defended the policy of overbooking, saying it helps the airline better serve passengers. American Airlines said it would not end the practice.

Alaska Airlines told the committee it was considering changing its overbooking policy.

Southwest said it would upgrade its reservation system and change its cancellation policy to end overbooking altogether.

"We are not going to go broke, I promise you that," said Bob Jordan, executive vice president at Southwest. Jordan said the airline expected the change to cut the number of incidents where customers are denied boarding by about 80 percent.

Delta Air Lines declined to testify. In a statement, the airline said it was working with individual members of Congress on customer service issues.


In March, a group of prominent Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reintroduced a bill called the SEAT Act to force airlines to expand seat size and legroom. They hope to attach it to legislation that has to be approved by Sept. 30.

Airlines have opposed previous efforts to mandate seat size and space, warning it would result in higher fares.

Democratic Representative Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut told the major airlines that their customer service issues suggested there was not enough competition.

"If the market were functioning well, this never could have happened," Esty said.

The Transportation Department on Tuesday issued a report that the U.S. airline industry made $13.5 billion in net profits in 2016.

Republican Duncan Hunter, who takes the only direct San Diego-Washington flight weekly when Congress is in session, said it was a "joke" to suggest there was competition.

"Why do you hate the American people?" he asked, semi-seriously. "I was going to ask how much do you hate the American people but I'm not going to ask that."

Representative Brian Babin, a conservative Republican from Texas, said he did not generally support government regulations but flying is now a "very onerous task" and "something has got to be done in terms of customer service with some of you airlines." 

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The tense House of Representatives committee hearing signaled how Congress might respond to rising consumer anger over cost-cutting by airlines that boiled over after David Dao, 69, was violently dragged from a United flight at a Chicago airport on April 9 to make room for crew members.
Lawmakers, Airline, Legislation, Passengers
Tuesday, 02 May 2017 02:55 PM
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