United Airlines grilled at Senate hearing
United Airlines President Scott Kirby took a “beating” on Capitol Hill Thursday for the second time this week.
Testifying before a Senate subcommittee, Kirby expressed remorse for the way United booted passenger David Dao off a packed flight last month.
It was the same message he delivered before a House hearing earlier this week. But skeptical senators on both sides of the aisle questioned how much the airline’s customer service policies will improve, given what they see as a lack of competition in the industry.
Senators raised concerns not only about United’s overbooking procedures, but also about baggage and flight change fees, and the legroom on planes.
Some lawmakers called for a stronger “Passenger Bill of Rights” to address these issues.
“It’s certainly impossible to ignore the public outcry,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said at the hearing.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told Kirby that passengers are “sick and tired” of being treated poorly by airlines.
“I take no pleasure in beating up on the airlines, but in this case, it is warranted and it’s a good thing we’re having this hearing,” Nelson said.
There is “no excuse for dehumanizing passengers,” added Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).
“It would be safe to say all of us were deeply disturbed by the images of Dr. Dao, bloodied and dazed, being dragged from the aisle of a plane last month,” Cantwell said.
“For a passenger who presented no threat to the safety or security of flight to be treated that way, is completely unnecessary and unacceptable,” she continued.
Since the incident, United has changed the airline’s overbooking policy. It will no longer remove seated passengers from a flight except for safety and security reasons. The airline will also increase compensation offers for customers who are denied boarding on overbooked flights.
But Cantwell called for further changes in how an airline determines who to involuntarily deny boarding to when there are not enough volunteers giving up their seats.
“The airlines are treating passengers like an algorithm,” Cantwell said. “They’re part of a computer-based system, where when you want to take someone off a flight you go to the person who isn’t a frequent flier, paid the lowest fare, the last boarding time.”
United also faces scrutiny over other aspects of the customer experience.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) pressed Kirby over whether United will follow American Airlines in reducing the legroom for passengers on their planes.
“How did you get out here today, flying commercial?” Masto asked United’s Kirby. “Were you in economy or first-class?”
“I was in 17E in economy,” Kirby responded, adding that he travels “about 70 percent first class, 30 percent economy.”
“I have a theory that if we required all executives to fly in the back of the plane, the consumer experience would be much better,” Masto replied.
Both Republicans and Democrats on the panel suggested there is not enough competition between airlines.
“Since this incident in Chicago, how’s business been at United?” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) asked Kirby.
“While this was a horrible incident that was terrible and shameful to all of us at United, for the most part, everything else at United is going really well,” Kirby responded.
Wicker dug in with more questions about the airline’s business operations.
“How are your boardings? Do you have as many bookings as before?” he asked. “How’s your stock been in the last three weeks since this incident?”
Kirby responded: “Initially, it went down, but has recovered since.”
“As a matter of fact, it’s higher now than it was the day of the incident,” Wicker pointed out.
The success of United’s stock — in spite of the public backlash the airline is suffering over the way it treated Dao — is a cause of concern for Wicker.
He argued the lack of competition in the airline industry gives consumers little choice other than to fly with United.
“You’ve got passengers right where you want them,” Wicker said.
“If the passengers want to boycott United because of this incident, they really don’t have a way to boycott you, do they?” he asked.
But Kirby objected, saying, “Sir, there’s lots of competition and they have a way to boycott us. I would like to think our stock recovered because we truly are going to fix the airline and put passengers at the center of everything we do.”
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