Congress eyes airline overhaul after United incident

Congress eyes airline overhaul after United incident
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Congress is eyeing an overhaul of airline policies after a man was violently removed from a United Airlines flight earlier this month — and members will have plenty of bills to choose from.

Capitol Hill has seen a flurry of action this week as lawmakers returned for the first time since the controversial dragging incident took place.

Lawmakers from both parties have introduced a spate of new measures to target airlines’ overbooking and bumping policies and strengthen traveler protections, while House and Senate committees scheduled two hearings on airline consumer issues for next week.

Some of the major airlines have already voluntarily revamped their customer service policies, which could help keep federal regulators off the industry’s back.


But a top aide on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee still expects airline consumer protections to be hotly debated in an upcoming must-pass aviation bill.

“I'm sure every member is going to come in [to the hearing] with a story, whether it's their story or their own experience, or it’s something they heard from constituents,” Holly E. Woodruff Lyons, deputy general counsel and staff director of the aviation subcommittee, said at a legislative conference this week.

“One of things that we heard from members is, when you’re in a seat and you’re buckled up, they shouldn’t be able to come in and take you off, for any reason at all. And so I think we’re going to hear a lot about that in Congress.”

Here are some of the legislative options that are under consideration.

The “Customers Not Cargo” Act

One of the first pieces of legislation to follow in the wake of the United uproar was a bill from Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) that would ban airlines from forcibly removing passengers off overbooked flights after they are already seated on the plane.

Under federal law, airlines are allowed to overbook flights and bump passengers against their will, although there are federal rules that must be followed in those instances.

If a flight is overbooked, it’s usually resolved before passengers board, but there is no current requirement to do so. Airlines set their own boarding policies, which customers agree to whenever they buy a ticket and thus agree to a “contract of carriage.”

“We should act immediately to ensure that airlines cannot force passengers who have already boarded to leave the plane in order to free up seats for others,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “Instead, they must provide sufficient incentives to encourage passengers to voluntarily deplane.”

The Secure Equity in Airline Transportation (SEAT) Act

A House Republican is floating a bill similar to Van Hollen’s.

Rep. Neal Dunn (Fla.) crafted legislation directing the Department of Transportation (DOT) to revise federal rules so that airlines cannot involuntarily remove a customer from their seat to make room for another passenger or an airline employee.

But the measure is also tailored to ensure that law enforcement can still intervene if a passenger is a threat to the safety of others.

Some airlines have already promised to not kick a passenger off a flight after boarding.

“Passengers should have the peace of mind to know they will not be dragged off a plane once they’re in their seat,” Dunn said in a statement. “Americans everywhere were shocked at the treatment of the passenger in Chicago. The SEAT Act will require airlines to sort out over-booking before allowing passengers to board the airplane.”

Passenger “Bill of Rights”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has been working on comprehensive legislation since last Congress to create a new “bill of rights” for airline passengers. 

The last major effort, which was implemented under the Obama administration, requires airlines to deplane passengers after a domestic flight has been sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours. Airlines must also ensure adequate food and water is given to customers if an aircraft has been delayed on the tarmac for two hours.

Blumenthal’s update may address cancellation fees, baggage fees, seat sizes, electronic cigarette use, evacuation procedures and airline competition.

“The disturbing video of United Airlines having police literally pull a passenger off a flight is just the latest example of a major U.S. airline disrespecting passengers and denying them their basic rights. Passengers need and deserve legal protections that prohibit this type of egregious treatment,” Blumenthal said in a statement to The Hill. 

“I am working to establish a Passengers Bill of Rights that will make clear incidents like the shocking one the world witnessed on United Flight 3411 will not be tolerated.” 

The Bumping on Overbooked Airplanes Requires Dealing Fairly (BOARD Fairly) Act

A bill from Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) would entirely end the practice of bumping passengers against their will.

Airlines could still overbook flights — a common practice that allows them to compensate for no-shows — but they would have to keep offering compensation until they can find a volunteer to give up their seat.

“The treatment of Dr. David Dao on United Airlines Flight 3411 demands a permanent response,” Schakowsky stated. “My bill says no more involuntary bumping — period.”

The Transparency, Improvements and Compensation to Keep Every Ticketholder Safe (TICKETS) Act

The most wide-ranging legislation comes from a pair of Senate Democrats.

Sens. Maggie Hassan (N.H.) and Brian Schatz (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 must offer passengers who are involuntarily bumped from a flight.

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 DOT to review the practice of overbooking flights; and require flight crews needing a flight accommodation to figure out arrangements 60 minutes prior to departure.

The sweeping measure, however, would likely be one of the heavier lifts on Capitol Hill.

“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 in a statement.

“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.”