WASHINGTON — Lawmakers blasted airlines Tuesday for treating passengers badly, such as dragging a passenger off a recent United Airlines flight, but airline executives insisted they are improving customer service.
The hearing at the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee broke little new ground as airlines explained how they are striving to reduce bumping of passengers from flights and selling more tickets than seats on planes. But it allowed lawmakers to vent the frustration of passengers and for executives to explain how they are trying to improve.
“There’s something clearly broken when we see passengers being treated the way some of them were treated on recent flights,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who said it would be “a tough, tough day” for executives. “It’s just common decency and common sense that you don’t treat a person that way, let alone a paying customer.”
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said testiness between passengers and airline crews stems from a deterioration in airline service with crowded planes, narrow seats and breakdowns such as when computer failures strand thousands of passengers at a time.
“Tempers are short everywhere,” DeFazio said.
The hearing was scheduled after passenger David Dao was dragged by aviation police off a United Express flight April 9, leaving him with a concussion and two broken teeth. The airline needed to remove four passengers after Flight 3411 from Chicago O’Hare to Louisville had loaded to make room for crew members.
United CEO Oscar Munoz apologized again Tuesday to Dao, who has reached a settlement with the airline, and the carrier’s other passengers. The Chicago aviation department suspended four workers over the incident and continues to investigate.
“We had a horrible failure three weeks ago. It is not who we are,” Munoz said. “We are here to talk about certain issues that won’t happen again. We will work incredibly hard to earn — not your business necessarily — but your trust.”
Munoz reiterated steps announced earlier to never have police remove a customer from a flight for other than safety or security reasons and to require all crews to check in 60 minutes before a flight.
“It was a mistake of epic proportions, in hindsight,” Munoz said. “It’s a horrible calculus to put people in.”
Most complaints Tuesday focused on airlines overbooking flights and then denying boarding to passengers.
But airlines had the lowest rate of involuntarily bumping passengers last year — 0.62 passengers for every 10,000 transported — since the Transportation Department began keeping track in 1995.
Airline executives explained than snowy or rainy weather may force them to reduce the number of passengers on a flight for safety reasons, in addition to overbooking flights.
Delta Air Lines raised its cap on incentives to persuade overbooked passengers to give up their seats to $9,950 after the United incident, and United boosted its cap to $10,000.
Bob Jordan, chief commercial officer for Southwest Airlines, said the airline would stop overbooking flights May 8 with a new reservation system that will help estimate how many passengers are expected for flights. He estimated that Southwest’s rate of bumping about one out of every 10,000 passengers would drop considerably.
“I expect that number to go down 80% because of that policy change,” he said.
But lawmakers were skeptical that airline competition would eliminate customer-service problems because the four largest airlines — American, Delta, Southwest and United — control 80% of the market.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said United is the only airline flying non-stop from San Diego to Washington, so he has no choice. He joked that he wanted to ask why airlines hate the American people so much, but he wouldn’t.
“I think that’s a joke that there’s competition in the airline industry,” Hunter said.
But United President Scott Kirby said nearly all flights have competition, perhaps from connecting flights. Jordan said there has never been more overlapping flights, especially from ultra-low cost carriers such as Frontier or Spirit, than now.
“There’s nothing to prevent another carrier from coming in,” Kirby said of a specific market such as San Diego.
Not all lawmakers criticized the airlines.
Rep. John Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., said he missed votes Monday because his flight from Knoxville was delayed three and a half hours and then canceled after a wing clipped a baggage truck. But he praised the airline industry and said customers remember only the rare bad incidents.
“We have the best aviation system in the entire world,” Duncan said.
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