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Lawmakers grill airline executives and warn: Treat customers better, or we'll force you

If airlines don’t work to fix customer service issues on their own, the government will need to step in, U.S. lawmakers told several airline executives Tuesday.

That bipartisan message — along with sharply worded comments about airlines’ treatment of passengers — came during a hearing before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

“If you want to keep treating us this way, fine,” Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.) said. “But there will come a day when Congress won’t accept it anymore on behalf of the American people.”

Lawmakers questioned airline executives about a number of customer service concerns including overbooking policies as well as the lengthy fine print of so-called contracts of carriage, which are the terms and conditions passengers unwittingly agree to when buying plane tickets.

The hearing follows several highly publicized problems on airlines, including the April incident in which a passenger, Dr. David Dao, was violently removed from a United Airlines flight after he refused to give up his seat so an airline employee could have it. Last week, United reached a settlement with Dao.

The viral video of Dao being dragged from his seat and down the airplane aisle has prompted some of the biggest changes in customer service rules since the U.S. Department of Transportation adopted regulations in 2009 that impose fines on airlines for leaving passengers stranded on delayed flights.

After public outrage exploded over Dao’s treatment, United announced 10 new rules, including a vow to never use police to force a seated passenger out of a plane, except for safety and security reasons.

Southwest Airlines subsequently said it would stop overbooking its flights, a practice most airlines use to respond to a small percentage of passengers who fail to show up for reserved seats.

Among other changes, United and Delta have said they will increase to $10,000 the maximum compensation offered to a passenger to voluntarily give up a seat on an overbooked flight.

United Airlines Chief Executive Oscar Munoz, United President Scott Kirby and executives from American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Southwest Airlines and an aviation consultant from Consumers Union attended Tuesday’s hearing and spoke as witnesses.

Munoz apologized again for the April incident during his opening statement, saying he was “personally sorry” that his and the airline’s immediate response was “inadequate at that moment.” Shortly after video of the incident surfaced online, Munoz sent a letter to employees in which he described Dao as a “belligerent” customer who “refused to comply” with requests to give up his seat.

“No customer should be treated the way Dr. Dao was, and we understand that,” Munoz said Tuesday. “As CEO, at the end of the day, that’s on me, and this has to be a turning point. We will do better.”

Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) compared the latest United incident to learning that a college fraternity is secretly hazing its members.

“You have people hazing all of the time,” she said. “No one does anything about the hazing until one day it’s exposed on social media.”

Wilson suggested the airlines need to increase and improve the amount of training provided to employees.

Munoz said during the hearing that United would strengthen training in customer service and how to keep complaints and conflicts from escalating.

American Airlines, too, has launched a new service-training program for employees, which will more extensively address how to reduce the intensity of situations, said Kerry Philipovitch, the airline’s senior vice president of customer experience.

“There is no question we can do better, but we have made progress,” she said about the industry’s customer service.

Several representatives criticized the airlines’ lengthy contracts of carriage, and Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) held up a thick stack of pages that made up airlines’ terms and conditions.

“We need simple language, disclosure and transparency in these contracts of carriage.” he said.

Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s delegate to the House, challenged the airlines to boil down customers’ rights in those contracts to a one-page document.

When executives from Alaska Airlines, Southwest Airlines and American Airlines said they would strive to make simpler and shorter contracts, Norton said, “We’re going to hold you all accountable for that.”

Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) harshly criticized the airlines, saying seating is tight, bag fees are too high and loyalty reward points are harder to use.

He noted that the airline industry is collecting near-record profits, and he accused the airline executives at the hearing of caring more about profits than about customers.

“Let’s be honest with ourselves: You would not be here if you were not reacting to a situation,” Katko told the panel of airline executives. “It’s no longer pleasant to fly.”

The congressional hearings came on the same day the U.S. Department of Transportation released data showing the nation’s airlines collected $13.5 billion in net profit in 2016, down from $24.8 billion in 2015. Airline earnings have been under pressure from higher labor costs.

The airlines’ 2016 revenue of $168.2 billion included $4.2 billion from baggage fees and $2.9 billion from reservation change fees. In 2015, revenue was $169 billion, including $3.8 billion from baggage fees and $3 billion from reservation change fees.

Representatives warned the airlines that if customer service did not improve, they could be subjected to a “one-size-fits-all” regulatory policy.

“Seize this opportunity,” said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), committee chairman. “Because if you don’t, we’re going to come and you’re not going to like it.

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

hugo.martin@latimes.com

Twitter: @smasunaga, @hugomartin

 


UPDATES:

1:55 p.m.: This article was updated to include more details from the hearing.

This article was originally published at 10:35 a.m.

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