Members of Congress Tell Airlines to Fix Customer Service or Face Reregulation

By Paul Riegler on 2 May 2017
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DSC_0590 (1)The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held hearings Tuesday to examine how airlines treat their passengers amidst the backdrop of multiple social media-fueled incidents at several of the country’s largest airlines

Members of the committee heard from multiple industry executives including Oscar Munoz, CEO of United, who has been in the hot seat after a highly-publicized incident last month when a passenger was injured while being dragged off a United Express flight by Chicago O’Hare law-enforcement officers after he refused to give up his seat to accommodate a United employee who was being repositioned.

“I don’t believe in reregulation, but Congress will not hesitate to act,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster. “If we don’t see meaningful improvements, I can assure you that you won’t like the outcome,” he added.

United’s Munoz called the Chicago incident “a turning point” and told the panel that the airline was making “constant” changes and had already moved to avoid overbooking.

Although overbooking wasn’t the problem in the United incident (the plane was full, not oversold), the theme of overbooking has loomed large over the industry in recent weeks nonetheless.

Airlines overbook flights because they can count on a certain number of passengers to not show up, regardless of the reason. The practice is believed to lead to lower airfares because it allows the airlines to fly the planes as close to full as possible. In the rare instances where overbookings occur, it costs the airline far less to compensate passengers for voluntarily giving up their seats than it would to fly every flight with empty seats.

United’s president, Scott Kirby, who recently moved into that role from competitor American Airlines, said that overbooking allows an airline “to take care of thousands of passengers we otherwise couldn’t accommodate.” Alaska Airlines’ senior vice president of external relations said that the Seattle-based carrier was able to make available some 675,000 seats last year that – without overbooking – simply would not have been available to last-minute travelers and customers whose original flights were delayed or cancelled due to weather or mechanical issues, adding that the practice does in fact keep airfares as low as they currently are.

American’s senior vice president of customer experience, Kerry Philipovitch, told the congressmen that the airline has been able to reduce the number of overbookings in part by adding more staff with greater authority to address such situations.

The subject will return to the Hill Thursday when the Senate Subcommitttee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security holds its own hearings on consumer protection issues and the state of airline travel.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

Accura News

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