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Congress thrashes airline executives over customer service

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The chief executive of United Airlines and some of his industry peers were taken to the people’s woodshed Tuesday (US time) and given a sound hiding by members of Congress over their lousy treatment of customers.

In a four-hour hearing that was called after a passenger was dragged bloodied off a United flight last month, members of the House Transportation Committee spoke from experience as frequent flyers about their own horror stories.

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They griped about squeezing their eminences into those tight seats. Or paying fees for checking bags and changing flights. Or lost baggage. Or the limited choice given that the major carriers have locked up most of the business.

“Every time you want to do something you have to pay extra,” Representative Albio Sires, said. “If you want a window or an aisle, you have to pay extra. … Pretty soon you’re going to charge to use the restrooms.”

"If we don't see meaningful results that improve customer service, the next time this committee meets to address the ... “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 won’t like the outcome.” Representative Bill Shuster, the committee’s chairman. Photo: Andrew Harrer

The members of Congress sounded just like millions of frustrated air travellers who feel helpless to do anything about these problems – except they’re not powerless. They just act that way.

Congress could call a vote and adopt an airline passenger bill of rights in the time it takes to drag a person off an airplane, if they wanted to. They had a chance last year to pass a bill on minimum seat standards but didn’t – and that’s an issue that not only has implications for people’s comfort but perhaps their safety, too. Consumer advocates have argued that the cramped seating on long flights can cause health problems for people and could have catastrophic consequences if the cabin has to be evacuated for an emergency. And yet the way things look, Congress is more likely to cede more power to the industry by privatising the Federal Aviation Administration’s air traffic control.

“Essentially, you represent four regional monopolies,” Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton lectured these captains of the air. “So basically, you’re able to do whatever you want to do.”

Yet all around her were members whose votes could put a stop to that.

There is pressure on Congress to act on the aviation industry. There is pressure on Congress to act on the aviation industry. Photo: AP

Several representatives – after reminding everyone how reluctant they were to burden industry with undue regulations, or re-regulate an industry that’s been deregulated for about 40 years – merely threatened to act.

“This issue is not going away. We’re not going away,” Republican Bill Shuster, the committee’s chairman, warned. “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 won’t like the outcome.”

The incident with Dr David Dao made global headlines.. The incident with Dr David Dao made global headlines.. Photo: Facebook

Keep in mind that Airlines for America, the industry’s lobbying organisation, spent more than $US6.4 million ($8.5 million) on lobbying in 2016, according to OpenSecrets.org. It gave $US12,000 to Shuster, the website says.

But William McGee, an aviation expert who testified Tuesday before the panel on behalf of the Consumers Union, said he thinks Congress might bestir itself to take action this time, thanks to the United controversy. McGee said he was struck by the outrage on both sides of the aisle Tuesday. But if this doesn’t move Capitol Hill to do something, than there’s no telling what will.

United chief executive Oscar Munoz was criticised for his immediate response to the incident with Dr David Dao. United chief executive Oscar Munoz was criticised for his immediate response to the incident with Dr David Dao. Photo: Richard Drew

“The fact is – our long experience is that unfortunately that when left to their own devices they do not fix these problems on their own,” McGee said in an interview after the hearing. “We would not even be having this discussion today if not for the cellphone camera.”

Not even all the airlines bothered to show up, and only United sent its chief executive officer. That was Oscar Munoz, who will be known for some time as the airline boss who responded to a PR crisis by making it worse in the early going by blaming the victim. To a suit, the executives often took turns reciting the industry’s mantra: Air travel has never been safer. Customers have never been happier with their services. All those fees, all those overbooked planes and bumped passengers, all that ugly dragging and frogmarching, is about keeping airfares low.

But McGee, whose Consumer Reports reaches millions of subscribers, said they hear differently from passengers. He said Congress should move to force airlines to do the following:

Simplify and enforce contracts of carriage

Airlines’ “contracts of carriage” – which spell out the duties, rights and liabilities that passengers and carriers assume with the purchase of a ticket – have become too opaque, too long, and too unfair in the way they are written and enforced, McGee said. Some run to tens of thousands of words.

Make booking more transparent

Airlines make it too difficult to shop for comparisons on fares, not all fees and charges are disclosed, and their pricing defies logic, McGee said. He spoke during the hearing about his own experience going to a website to book a flight whose price jumped from about $US400 to nearly $US650 in just seven hours. “There’s so much sticker shock,” McGee said.

Regulate minimum seat standards

The most obvious reason Congress should act is that the airlines will continue to shrink seats and squeeze people into modern-day steerage no matter how uncomfortable it is for consumers, McGee said. But he said it’s also a health issue. Sitting in a tight spot for hours could cause the formation of dangerous blood clots in some people, known as deep vein thrombosis, he said. Even more worrisome, as seats have become smaller than ever and airlines cram in more people per plane, several safety advocates have expressed concern over whether the cabin can be safely and quickly evacuated in an emergency.

Fees

The Consumers Union has not taken a position on whether airlines should charge fees, McGee said. But they should be entirely upfront on all fees and surcharges that a passenger could incur.

Overbooking

Even at Tuesday’s hearing, and in the aftermath of the United incident, the airlines have been making promises that they will no longer involuntarily remove passengers from overbooked flights after the passengers have boarded, unless it involves an issue of safety or security. McGee said the industry must go further: “There should be no involuntarily denied boarding,” McGee said. If the airlines need a seat, they should offer passengers whatever compensation it takes for them to give it up voluntarily. He said his organisation has long opposed the idea that some passengers should be tapped for removal over others based on a host of factors the airlines take into account without disclosing them to anyone.

In the end, it’s all about treating everyone with decency, and up until now, the airlines have been tone deaf on that, McGee said.

“There’s a dirty little secret in the airline industry, and not all passengers are created equal,” McGee said.

But the people who vote for members of Congress are.

The Washington Post

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