Airlines blasted for poor customer service, inattention to passengers' rights

APTOPIX Congress Passenger Removed
United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz arrives on Capitol Hill to testify before the House Transportation Committee oversight hearing. Also at hearing are United Airlines President Scott Kirby and American Airlines Senior Vice President of Customer Experience Kerry Philipovitch.

U.S. lawmakers blasted airline executives Tuesday and urged an end to added fees, cramped seats, and poor customer service after public outrage over a passenger dragged off a flight last month.

The hearing by the House Transportation Committee comes five days after United Airlines reached a settlement with the passenger, David Dao, who was forcibly removed from a United flight on April 9 after refusing to give up his seat to a crew member.

The episode, captured on cellphone video that went viral, touched off international debate about customer service, boarding, and baggage policies.

"Congress will not hesitate to act to ensure your customers, our constituents, are treated with respect,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R., Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

If airlines don’t act to improve, “I can assure you, you won’t like the outcome,” Shuster said.

United CEO Oscar Munoz said, “The reason I’m sitting here today is because on April 9 we had a serious breach of public trust." Munoz, who was joined by United president Scott Kirby, said United has made policy changes to reduce overbooked flights and offer passengers who give up their seats as much as $10,000.

Since the episode, Alaska, Southwest, and American testified on Tuesday that they have reviewed and altered policies for passengers bumped from flights and increased compensation.

“Alaska is actively reviewing sensitive customer policies, such as overbooking,” Joseph Sprague, senior vice president at Alaska Airlines, said in testimony.

Starting May 8, Southwest Airlines will stop overselling flights and will upgrade its reservation system to better predict who will show up for flights. The change is expected to reduce instances of denied boarding, or bumping passengers, by about 80 percent, said Bob Jordan, chief commercial officer.  Bumping often occurs in inclement weather when aircraft must fly lighter, or when planes are switched, from larger to smaller jets, Jordan said. 

American Airlines, which has a hub in Philadelphia, said an April 21 episode when a flight attendant grabbed a stroller from a passenger, also captured on video, clearly was wrong. The comments were made by Kerry Philipovitch, senior vice president of customer experience.

American has pledged not to remove a customer seated on a plane in order to accommodate another. American will solicit volunteers prior to their arrival at airports. Employees will get more training, and gate agents have been authorized to offer "necessary" compensation to travelers bumped from flights, she said.

Under tense questioning by members of the committee, the airlines agreed to simplify and shorten their “contracts of carriage,” which are provisions on the airlines’ websites detailing baggage, boarding, and the policies under which ticketed passengers can be denied boarding.

The contracts of carriage “are lengthy, filled with legal jargon, and where the priority is to protect the airline, not its passengers,” said William McGee, aviation consultant with Consumers Union.

“Last year, domestic carriers bumped 40,629 passengers against their will,” McGee said. “These people paid for their tickets, made their plans, and then were selected — without explanation, based on criteria known only to the airline — to miss family events, business meetings, and vacations.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D., Ore.), the senior ranking Democrat on the committee, said airline customer service has deteriorated for years, including last summer when hundreds of thousands of passengers were stranded because of computer meltdowns. “Airlines are good at filling up planes,” he said, “but they often don’t have a single empty seat, and the seats are getting smaller and closer together.”

DeFazio and Rep. Rick Larsen (D., Washington) said Tuesday that they have requested a Government Accountability Office study of what Congress and the Department of Transportation can do to protect passengers' rights.

The airline industry has seen massive consolidation: Four carriers control 80 percent of the market. “Less than a decade ago, we had much more diversity. Load factors are at a near 15-year high — planes are 82.4 percent full.

“And a lot of people just don’t have a choice any more," DeFazio said. “This is all being driven by the bottom line, and not by customer service. We’ve got to get some customer service back in there."