On Tuesday, representatives from many of the nation’s airlines sat before Congress to testify regarding their business practices, during the first congressional hearing since United Airlines violently dragged a passenger off a plane in April.
Although all airlines were invited, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United were the only to attend and face members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who is threatening to take legislation action if the airlines don’t improve their customer service policies.
Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said he hopes the hearing will help Congress determine if and how they should intervene into the airlines. Shuster warned the airline executives, “Seize this opportunity, because if you don’t, we’re going to come, and you won’t like it.”
He continued, “If changes aren’t made by the next hearing, I can assure you, you won’t like the outcome. If we act, it’s going to be one-size-fits-all.”
The practice of airlines overbooking and bumping passengers, insisting on lengthy “contracts of carriage,” and charging baggage and flight-change fees came under fire during the hearing.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) stated, “Unless we figure out a way to guarantee that customers are coming first, you’re going to see more of that. What kind of assurances can we have that there shouldn’t be legislation in place?”
United CEO Oscar Munoz defended the practice of overselling flights and bumping passengers, saying it allows airlines to account for no-shows and helps the airline accommodate passengers in case of malfunctions.
Munoz did apologize for its horrible treatment of Dr. David Dao and vowed to provide more compensation to those who volunteer to give up their seat, to not remove passengers already on a plane, and to require airline personnel to determine their flight arrangements 60 minutes before departure.
United still has yet to determine how to decide which passengers get bumped, a practice Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.) called “unbelievable.”
Southwest said in the hearing it will no longer overbook flights.
Another practice that was discussed are the “contracts of carriage” that customers agree to when purchasing tickets. Lawmakers pointed out the contracts are so long and complicated that passengers don’t know what terms they’re agreeing to, including in what conditions they may be bumped from a flight.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member on the panel, shared that one of his staffers was compensated for a delayed flight, but only after printing out and sifting through dozens of pages of the airline’s contract of carriage.
Both United’s and Alaska’s contracts, for instance, are over 37,000 words. “How many people have the patience to do that?” DeFazio questioned. “We need transparency and simple language in the contract of carriage.”
All airlines present agreed to shorten and simplify their contracts, with Alaska promising to reduce its contract to just one page.
Another point of contention – with the exception of Southwest – was charges by the airlines for bags and changing flights.
Congress has long been trying to stop these fees, as it costs the airlines nothing to switch a flight. When pressed, United admitted to making $800 million in change fees.
Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.), said, “If you want a window, you pay extra. You want a seat in the front, you pay extra. Pretty soon, you’re going to charge to use the restrooms.”
All these issues will most likely be debated in a forthcoming Federal Aviation Administration, at which lawmakers have promised to push for new consumer protections.
DeFazio said he hopes to “push, prod or legislate” the airline industry into improving the experience for the flying public.
All airlines present promised to no longer kick passengers off flights once they’ve boarded. Congress hopes more measures will be taken to keep federal regulators off the airline industry’s back.
After the hearing, Munoz told reporters, “The sense in the room was a lot of admonition to get your collective stuff together, you the industry, and you can avoid us, which I think is fair. If we don’t do what we said, then we should be able to stand up to whatever they might offer for us.”
See Munoz speak at the hearing:
H/T: The Hill
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