UA3411 hearing gives Congress soundbites for reelection campaigns

“The last thing in the world you want is this committee and this Congress putting [rules] together.” So said Representative Bill Shuster, Chair of the House Transportation Committee, in admonishing the US aviation industry twice today during a four-plus hour hearing about a spate of recent, high-profile passenger experience problems.

The session called “Oversight of US Airline Customer Service,” came about thanks to the shocking Dr. Dao incident on United Airlines’ flight 3411 three weeks ago and the subsequent “stroller incident” on an American Airlines flight shortly thereafter. Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines joined those two carriers in testifying at the hearing, as did a representative from consumer rights group, the Consumers Union.

Some members of Congress used their time to praise a favored airline or vent frustration about a less favored carrier. A couple of them expressed views about airline operations that bear little resemblance to reality. That $10,000 denied boarding voucher promised by United and Delta is almost certainly never going to be issued, though one Congressman believes a “stampede” of volunteers is coming.

One Congressman was excited by “Sky Blue” airlines, almost certainly a misnomer for JetBlue and not a slip about Blue Star Airlines from the movie Wall Street. Another referred to “SkyWorst” when discussing regional carrier SkyWest, a partner to United and others. One asked when airlines will start charging for access to onboard toilets (United said never) and another suggested that airlines might start charging for oxygen on board; I think these two were joking. Still another member of Congress was confused as to why a crew member could be out of position relative to an aircraft (planes fly more hours than crew people due to FAA rules) or why a plane couldn’t fly without the full complement of crew (also FAA rules). These are the people responsible for making decisions affecting millions of people every day.

Opening Remarks

The hearing started, as expected, with United CEO Oscar Munoz issuing another mea culpa for the UA3411 incident. He noted that the carrier’s recently announced changes will almost certainly prevent a repeat. And he assured lawmakers that any similar problems in the future will be solved internally, “If we break it, it is incumbent on us to fix it.”

Southwest used its opening statement to talk up plans to halt the overbooking of its flights going forward. Some industry observers (your author included) question the fiscal wisdom of that move, but the airline insists it is the correct choice for passengers. Among other factors, a relatively recent requirement that passengers inform Southwest if they will not be flying in advance of departure – to keep the ticket value credit – helped significantly reduce over-sales, according to EVP/CCO Bob Jordan.

William McGee of the Consumers Union suggested that the class divide on board is part of the problem, noting that economy passengers are treated with “an utter lack of respect”. Several members of Congress chose to echo that view during the Q&A portion of the session, while the airlines did little to dispute the statement. Indeed, Representative Cohen went so far as to call out the Air Wisconsin CRJ200 fleet, calling the aircraft type a “bus with propellers bolted on” and indicating that he prefers flying the Embraer planes better.

Competition and Passenger Rights

The more actionable sections of the testimony focused on interline agreements, competition and accountability. Faced with questions about EU flyers’ rights, American’s SVP customer experience, Kerry Philipovitch, suggested to the Committee that the FAA already offers sufficient consumer protections. This is not a surprising position for an airline seeking to avoid further regulation but to suggest that the two are similar in efficacy is a gross misstatement of the rules. The FAA prescribes virtually zero direct consumer action, preferring to wield fines against the carriers versus compensation to passengers for airline misbehavior.

Interline agreements were also a significant part of the discussion with one member suggesting that “Rule 240”, the legacy CAB requirement that all airlines work with each other to carry passengers, could make a comeback. Munoz suggested that United is a “strong believer” in the power of interline agreements while neglecting to mention that the airline quietly cut such ties with five carriers in the Middle East recently.

Representative Norton of Washington DC was one of several who broached the onerous nature of the Contract of Carriage. She pressed each airline to deliver a one-page summary that would simplify the explanation of said contract. All four carriers declined that offer, though at least a couple said they would try.

Much like Chairman Shuster, Representative Capuano offered up a harsh warning to the airlines during the session, “There will come a day when the American people won’t accept it anymore…This doesn’t stop today.” Alas, it is unclear that there is any bite in that bark.

Ultimately expect little to change as a result of the testimony or as a result of the recent incidents. But Congress got its hearings and four hours of sound bites to use in reelection campaigns next year.

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