Senate Dems back bill to boost airline consumer protections

Senate Dems back bill to boost airline consumer protections
© Greg Nash

A pair of Democrats on Wednesday introduced sweeping legislation to strengthen consumer protections for airline passengers in the latest congressional response to a man being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight earlier this month.

Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) unveiled a bill that would prohibit airlines from kicking customers off a plane after they have already boarded — unless it’s a matter of safety or security — and eliminate the federal cap on the amount of compensation that airlines can offer passengers who are involuntarily bumped from a flight.

The measure is designed to prevent a repeat of the United incident, in which a 69-year-old man was forcibly removed from a plane and dragged down the aisle by his wrists in order to make room for airline personnel.

ADVERTISEMENT

The incident ignited a firestorm and put a spotlight on airlines’ treatment of passengers, with a number of bills being introduced on Capitol Hill this week to enhance protections for the traveling public.

“The horrifying incident on United Flight 3411 made clear that we need stronger consumer protections for the flying public,” Hassan said. “This common-sense legislation will help prevent incidents like that from happening again and help ensure that travelers are treated with greater fairness and respect by the airlines industry.”
 
The bill would also require air carriers to list their boarding and bumping policies on all flight itineraries and receipts, as well as publicly post them at the airport gate; direct the Transportation Department to review the practice of overbooking flights; and require flight crews needing a flight accommodation to figure out arrangements 60 minutes prior to departure.

“It should go without saying that unless there is a security threat or a safety risk, paying customers should not be forcibly removed from an airplane,” Schatz said. “But given what happened earlier this month, we need to take action. Our bill will make sure that no matter who you are, passengers are treated with basic respect and dignity.”

Airlines are legally allowed to overbook flights and bump passengers against their will, although there are federal rules that need to be followed.

But each airline is responsible for setting its own boarding policies, which customers agree to whenever they book a flight and enter into a “contract of carriage.”

A number of airlines are already revamping their customer service policies in the wake of the United flap, including increasing how much they will offer passengers to voluntarily give up their seats and requiring flight crews to check in 60 minutes before boarding.

The effort could help keep federal regulators off the industry’s back, especially with lawmakers planning congressional hearings and crafting bills that target airlines’ overbooking and passenger-bumping policies.