Congress poised to prohibit airlines from forcibly removing customers

Congress poised to prohibit airlines from forcibly removing customers
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Congress appears poised to crack down on the airline industry after a passenger was violently dragged off a United Airlines flight earlier this year.

Transportation leaders in both chambers unveiled must-pass aviation bills this week that contain a slew of new consumer protections, including language that would prohibit airlines from involuntarily removing customers from a flight after they have already boarded the plane.

Airlines may be able to swallow the policy, which is far less severe than other proposals that have been floated. And companies have not aggressively pushed back against the idea in public, likely realizing that the negative attention from a viral video of the United incident has cast the die on the issue.  

It also appears to have changed the political calculations.

Republicans have long been reluctant to over-regulate the airline industry, but they have backed the provision — underscoring the powerful impact of the United controversy.

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“We’d like the airlines to understand what they should be doing on their own for consumer protections that are reasonable, rational and common sense,” Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.), chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation, told The Hill on Thursday. “And if they don’t do it on their own, we’re going to help them out.”

United sparked a firestorm of controversy when videos emerged on social media of security officers forcibly removing a 69-year-old man from his seat and dragging him down the aisle by his wrists.

The passenger, who settled with United after he lost several teeth and suffered a severe concussion and broken nose, had refused to give up his seat to make room for United crew members who needed to be on the full flight.

United said that when no one volunteered to be bumped, they were forced to randomly select passengers using an automated system. The carrier has since apologized for the episode and instituted a series of policy changes.

Airlines are legally allowed to overbook flights and bump passengers against their will. It’s a common business practice to help compensate for no-shows, although most issues are typically figured out prior to boarding.

There are also federal rules that need to be followed. Anyone bumped against their will may be entitled to compensation and must be given a written statement detailing their rights and explaining how the airline decides who gets on an overbooked flight and who doesn't.

But each airline is largely responsible for setting their own boarding policies, which customers agree to whenever they book a flight and enter into a “contract of carriage.” Many passengers are unaware of the contracts, which are posted online and can be dozens of pages long.

The United incident put a national spotlight on the airline industry’s customer service policies, fueling a push in Congress to create new passenger rights.

Lawmakers from both parties have introduced a wave of bills targeting airlines' overbooking and bumping policies — including banning the practice altogether.

And lawmakers grilled United CEO Oscar Munoz and other air carriers during a high-profile hearing, where they warned the companies to shape up their behavior.

A number of airlines have already revamped their customer service policies in the wake of the incident, hoping to keep federal regulators off the industry’s back. United and American Airlines both promised not to remove passengers after they are seated on the aircraft.

Airlines for America, the trade group representing most of the nation's major airlines, pointed out to The Hill that the group testified to Congress that a number of airlines were already taking that step.

But the moves do not appear to have fully assuaged the concerns of Congress, which could translate into long-lasting consequences for the airline industry.

The House’s aviation bill, which would reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for six years, would ensure that passengers aren’t removed from a plane to make room for someone else, unless it’s a matter of safety or security.

Lawmakers say they are hoping to prevent a repeat of the controversial dragging episode.

“I believe [the United incident] did play a role” in crafting the FAA bill, Rep. Lou BarlettaLouis (Lou) James BarlettaJosh Shapiro officially launches Pennsylvania gubernatorial campaign Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro enters governor's race Barletta holds wide lead over GOP rivals in early poll of Pennsylvania governor race MORE (R-Pa.) told The Hill.

The legislation would also clarify that there are no federal limits on the level of compensation that can be provided to bumped passengers and would require air carriers to proactively offer customers compensation instead of waiting for them to request it.

“A lot of it is clarifying some of the rules,” said Rep. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdThe biggest political upsets of the decade Members spar over sexual harassment training deadline Female Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations MORE (R-Texas). “There was some discussion with United that there was a limit as to what they can pay. This legislation makes it clear that that is not the case.”

Across the Capitol, the Senate’s long-term reauthorization of the FAA also would ban involuntary bumping and ensure there are no limits on compensation.

But the Senate version, which draws from legislation authored by Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenFranken rules out challenge against Gillibrand for Senate seat Franken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Al Franken on another Senate run: 'I'm keeping my options open' MORE (D-Minn.), would require a federal review of airlines' overselling policies and require air carriers to clearly specify their boarding and bumping practices on a passenger’s flight itinerary, receipt or other direct form of communication.

“I knew we had to come together to make sure that this kind of outrageous action can never happen again,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who backed similar legislation. “We worked on a bipartisan, bicameral basis on this issue, and I’m pleased that this common-sense idea is in the proposed FAA bill. I will continue to work with my colleagues to ensure that it is in the final law.”