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Lawmakers warn airlines over passenger treatment

Updated May 2, 2017 - 10:44 am

WASHINGTON — 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 dragged off an overbooked flight last month.

At a tense House of Representatives hearing where executives defended airline policies, one lawmaker threw up his hands in frustration over the problems flyers routinely face, including complicated booking systems, confusing fees, long waits and unexplained flight delays.

“We all know it’s a terrible experience,” said Rep. Michael Capuano, a Democrat from Massachusetts. “Some charge fees for baggage, some charge fees for oxygen, who knows?”

The hearing could serve as a test of how the Republican-led Congress would 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.

Republicans largely back President Donald Trump’s push to cut rules and regulations they say hamper business growth, but 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.

Republican Duncan Hunter, who flies from San Diego to Washington weekly when Congress is in session, said it is a “joke” that there is competition, given there is no other direct flight from Washington to San Diego.

“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.”

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

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.

More apologies

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.

Defending overbooking

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 is considering changes to 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 expects the change will cut the number of incidents where customers are denied boarding by about 80 percent.

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

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