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Congress’ tough warning to airlines: Fix these problems or we will

United Airlines CEO apologizes again at hearing on customer service concerns

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz testified at a hearing Tuesday on customer service concerns following incidents on flights, including one in which a passenger was dragged off a plane for refusing to give up his seat.
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United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz testified at a hearing Tuesday on customer service concerns following incidents on flights, including one in which a passenger was dragged off a plane for refusing to give up his seat.

Congress is ready to act unless the airlines fix customer service problems.

That was the stern, clear warning lawmakers gave airline executives who testified before Congress on Tuesday.

“Seize this opportunity. If you don’t, we’re going to come, and you’re not going to like it,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The airline industry is one of the most powerful interests that lobbies lawmakers and contributes millions to their re-election campaigns, especially those that serve on the committee that oversees them.

Still, the outrage members of Congress expressed Tuesday reflected the still-simmering public anger over the violent removal of a United Airlines passenger from a flight last month, captured on cellphone videos that millions have viewed worldwide.

“If we act, it’s going to be one-size-fits-all,” Shuster warned.

Some members could push legislation to prohibit overbooking situations or the removal of passengers from boarded flights. Or Congress could require that airlines more clearly spell out the rights of passengers, said Thomas Cooke, a distinguished teaching professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

“If there’s any one subject matter that’s going to get to the heart of many voters, it’s travel,” Cooke said. “There’s no one that is immune at this point from Congress’ oversight.”

Still, Cooke thought the airlines could work matters out. The airlines have made changes since April 9, when Kentucky doctor David Dao was pulled off a plane he’d already boarded by law enforcement at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Last week, Dao and United reached a confidential settlement.

“We failed,” United CEO Oscar Munoz, who’s endured weeks of criticism for the incident and the airline’s response to it, told the House committee.

A Southwest Airlines executive told lawmakers Tuesday that the carrier will stop the unpopular practice of overbooking flights.

Bob Jordan, executive vice president and chief commercial officer at Southwest, told House panel members the airline would cease overbooking as of next week.

“It fits perfectly with our brand,” said Jordan, whose airline is the largest domestic carrier as measured by passengers and unlike its rivals does not charge checked-bag or flight-change fees.

Executives from United and American, who also testified Tuesday, did not say whether they’d follow Southwest’s example.

However, the carriers said they would no longer remove passengers once they are on board the aircraft for reasons unrelated to safety or security.

“These changes are just a start,” Munoz testified.

Delta and United will offer passengers as much as $10,000 to give up their seats. American has set no limit on the compensation it will offer passengers.

The airlines also pledged to review how their employees are trained and empowered to deal with customer-service situations.

“We know we have some catching up to do,” testified Kerry Philipovitch, senior vice president of customer experience at American Airlines.

American may have averted a public-relations meltdown after a confrontation last month between an airline employee and a passenger over a stroller by immediately apologizing and suspending the employee. United, however, had initially defended its employees’ conduct before Munoz made multiple public apologies for how they had treated Dao.

“Clearly, what happened was wrong,” Philipovitch said.

Still, lawmakers, who are some of the most frequent fliers in the country, put the airlines on notice that they needed to do better.

“These changes are not enough to protect passengers,” said Rep. Dan Lipinski, an Illinois Democrat on the aviation subcommittee.

Airlines and related businesses are one of the most powerful special interests in Washington and invest heavily to make sure their views are represented. Airlines and their trade groups spent more than $27 million on lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog.

Eight of the House’s ten 10 recipients of airline transport campaign contributions in 2016 are on the Transportation Committee, including Shuster, the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, and the chairman of its aviation subcommittee, Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J. Another member, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., lost re-election last year, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., was the remaining top recipient in last year’s election.

“They have buttered the bread on all sides,” Cooke said.

Still, lawmakers sent a message during Tuesday’s hearing, which stretched four and a half hours, that no amount of lobbying prowess or campaign cash could get airlines off the hook.

“No one should ever be treated this way, and we’re here to ensure it never happens again,” LoBiondo said.

“I think the airline industry needs to focus on getting its own house in order,” DeFazio said.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

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