Lawmakers warn airlines: Shape up or else

Victoria Sarno Jordan

Lawmakers are threatening to take legislative action against airlines if they don’t improve their customer service policies in the wake of a passenger being violently dragged off a United Airlines flight last month.

United, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines were all in the congressional hot seat on Tuesday as members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee grilled executives about their business practices during the first congressional hearing since the United confrontation.

“If changes aren’t made by the next hearing, I can assure you, you won’t like the outcome,” said Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.). “If we act, it’s going to be one-size-fits-all.”

Shuster said representatives from all the nation’s airlines were invited to testify but those in attendance were the only “brave” ones who agreed.

In a sit-down interview with The Hill on Monday, Shuster said that he hopes to come away from the oversight hearing with a better understanding about whether and how Congress should intervene after United’s action drew public outrage, which could shape work on an upcoming must-pass aviation bill.

“Seize this opportunity, because if you don’t, we’re going to come, and you won’t like it,” he warned the airlines Tuesday.

Airlines’ overbooking and bumping policies took center stage at the hearing as Congress considers a stack of new bills that would target those practices and strengthen consumer protections.

“Unless we figure out a way to guarantee that customers are coming first, you’re going to see more of that,” said Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.). “What kind of assurances can we have that there shouldn’t be legislation in place?”


Pushback against how airlines treat passengers has mounted since video of security officers dragging a 69-year-old man from his seat went viral. United said that when too few people volunteered to give up their seats for airline employees, passengers were chosen for removal through an automated process.

United CEO Oscar Munoz largely defended the practice of overbooking and bumping passengers to Congress, saying it helps the airline accommodate passengers when there are malfunctions, pointing to a recent incident in Dubai that allowed passengers on a canceled flight to get home sooner.

Overselling flights also allows airlines to compensate for no-shows.

United, which apologized profusely for its “horrible failure,” said it will now offer more compensation to volunteers, no longer remove passengers after they have already boarded and require airline personnel to figure out arrangements 60 minutes before departure.

But United has not changed how it determines which passengers are selected to be bumped, which Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.) called “unbelievable.” He said it should be based on the last person to show up to the gate instead of an automated system.

“This situation is a difficult one, because if someone arrives late because they delivered a baby or something … it’s a difficult choice,” Munoz said. 

Southwest, however, avoided the heat from lawmakers because the company has already agreed to stop overbooking flights starting this month. The airline said it was already contemplating the change when the United incident spurred it to move forward.

Other airline business practices also came under fire Tuesday. 

Lawmakers skewered airlines over their lengthy “contracts of carriage,” which customers agree to whenever they book a ticket. The contracts — posted on the companies’ websites — detail customer service, boarding and baggage policies, including under what conditions a passenger can be removed from a flight.

Lawmakers said that passengers often don’t know what terms they are agreeing to when they buy tickets because the contracts are so lengthy and too complicated for the average person to comprehend.

United’s contract is 46 pages and over 37,000 words long; Alaska’s is 67 pages and over 37,000 words long.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member on the panel, said one of his staffers was able to get compensation for a delayed flight after printing out and sifting through dozens of pages of the airline’s contract of carriage.

“How many people have the patience to do that?” DeFazio said. “We need transparency and simple language in the contract of carriage.”

Every single airline at the hearing agreed to simplify and shorten their contracts to make them more transparent, with Alaska even promising to reduce it to a single page.

“Ours is too long,” said Joseph Sprague, senior vice president of external relations for Alaska.

Some lawmakers blasted the airlines — with the exception of Southwest — for charging baggage and flight-change fees.  There has long been a push in Congress to stop air carriers from charging those fees.

“If you want a window, you pay extra. You want a seat in the front, you pay extra,” said Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.). “Pretty soon, you’re going to charge to use the restrooms.”

United promised that it would never charge passengers for restroom use, though it said other fees allow the company to keep airfares low.

But when pressed by DeFazio, the airlines admitted that there is no direct cost for the process of having to switch a flight. United has made $800 million in change fees, DeFazio said.

He said he hopes to “push, prod or legislate” the airline industry into improving the flying experience for the traveling public.

All of these consumer issues are likely to be debated in an upcoming reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, where lawmakers have vowed to push for new consumer protections.

“Don’t make us have to act and put [on] a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.).

But with most of the airlines making customer service changes on their own, it could help keep federal regulators off the industry’s back.

Every airline represented at the hearing promised Tuesday not to kick passengers off flights after they have already boarded, which was an effort that seemed to be gaining the most steam in Congress.

“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,” Munoz told reporters after the hearing. “If we don’t do what we said, then we should be able to stand up to whatever they might offer for us.”

— This report was updated at 2:24 p.m.

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