Airlines Assailed on Customer Service at Heated House Hearing

WASHINGTON (CN) – Fed up with belated apologies about the violent removal of a United Airlines passenger from a plane last month, members of Congress issued a warning Tuesday to CEO Oscar Munoz.

“I shouldn’t need to remind you that Congress will not hesitate to act whenever necessary to ensure your customers, our constituents, are treated with the respect they deserve,” Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Penn., said. “If we don’t see meaningful results that improve customer service the next time this committee meets to address the issue, I can assure you, you won’t like the outcome.”

The hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee came five days after United reached a confidential settlement with David Dao, the doctor its workers bloodied some weeks earlier while trying to free up his seat on the overbooked flight out of Chicago.

Representatives from Southwest and American Airlines joined Munoz at the witness table Tuesday as the United CEO detailed policy changes the airline adopted after cellphone footage of the Dao incident on April 9 went viral.

“We had a horrible failure three weeks ago,” Munoz said. “It is not who we are. It is not this company, and frankly it is not this industry.”

Apologizing for United’s early reluctance to admit fault, Munoz assured Congress his company is using the incident as a turning point, already shown in its decision to increase incentives for customers who voluntarily choose to leave an overbooked flight.

Committee members teed off not just on Munoz, but also on the difficulties of flying in general. Frequent fliers themselves, the members of Congress were not short on personal stories of dealing with overworked employees, delays or cancellations.

They also complained about complicated, inscrutable contracts of carriage. Running into the tens of thousands of words, these contracts make it difficult for passengers to determine their rights and the responsibilities of the airlines, the lawmakers said.

But the focus ultimately came back to whether it would be appropriate for Congress to make regulatory changes to improve the experiences of passengers and what those changes might look like. William McGee, an aviation consultant with the consumer advocacy group Consumers Union, supported this plan, blaming most of the problems with airlines on deregulation of the industry that began decades ago.

The airline industry executives at the hearing meanwhile insisted that competition, not regulation, is helping them improve customer experiences, high-profile gaffes aside.

Committee members voiced skepticism, however, that the competition proclaimed by the airlines even exists.

“Jack-In-The-Box, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, that’s competition,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said. “Hertz, Budget, Avis, that’s competition. Having only one airline that flies one straight shot out of all the airlines, that’s not competition.”

Lawmakers floated a requirement for airlines to give customers a more transparent look at their rights when buying tickets and simplifying contracts of carriage. Shuster also suggested Congress might look beyond just the issues before them Tuesday, saying tort reform could free airlines up to make simpler declarations of passenger rights.

Unusual for such suggestions on Capitol Hill, threats of increasing regulation on the airline industry came from both Republicans and Democrats who complained their constituents are getting less quality and fewer choices.

“I’m a conservative Republican,” said Rep. Brian Babin, who represents a district in southeastern Texas. “I don’t like regulation if we can get away with it, but something needs to be done in terms of customer service.”

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