U.S. lawmakers grill airline executives
after customer disasters
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[May 03, 2017]
By David Shepardson and Alana Wise
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers
threatened United Airlines <UAL.N> and other carriers on Tuesday with
legislation aimed at improving customer service after a passenger was
hauled down the aisle of a flight last month.
Top airline executives testified to the House of Representatives
transportation committee and promised to address customer service
failures at the hearing held to consider ways to address passenger
frustrations with problems such as overbooking.
The industry breathed a sigh of relief after the four-hour hearing, in
which lawmakers did not outline any immediate plans for increased
oversight on the largely deregulated sector.
In April, video went viral on social media of 69-year-old passenger
David Dao being dragged from a United flight at Chicago's O'Hare
International Airport after he refused to give up his seat to make room
for crew members.
United Chief Executive Oscar Munoz repeatedly apologized at the hearing
for the removal of Dao, with whom the airline reached a settlement last
week for an undisclosed sum. "In that moment for our customers and our
company we failed, and so as CEO, at the end of the day, that is on me,"
Munoz said. He called the removal the result of a series of system
failures and "a mistake of epic proportions."Munoz was joined at the
hearing by United President Scott Kirby and executives from American
Airlines <AAL.O>, Southwest Airlines <LUV.N> and Alaska Airlines
<ALK.N>. American Airlines experienced its own public relations fiasco
last month when a passenger video went viral, showing a woman on a plane
in tears holding a child in her arms and another at her side after an
encounter with a flight attendant over a baby stroller. "Clearly what
happened was wrong," said Kerry Philipovitch, the airline's senior vice
president of customer experience, at the hearing.
Airline stocks rose after the hearing and Delta Air Lines Inc <DAL.N>
reported a gain in April traffic.
On Tuesday, United's stock closed up 5.2 percent, Delta gained 5.4
percent, American added 4.3 percent, and Southwest was up 3.6 percent.
Analyst Jim Corridore of CFRA Research said investors were focusing on
news of Delta's improved unit revenue and were also relieved that
lawmakers did not outline plans for immediate moves to tighten
Many lawmakers fly weekly to and from Washington and during the hearing
took the opportunity to recount the frustrations customers routinely
face, including complicated booking systems, confusing fees, long waits
and unexplained flight delays.
[to top of second column]
United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz (L) testifies next to UAL President
Scott Kirby at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee
hearing on "Oversight of U.S. Airline Customer Service," in the
aftermath of the forced removal on April 9 of a passenger from a UAL
Chicago flight, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 2, 2017.
"We all know it's a terrible experience," said Representative
Michael Capuano, a Democrat from Massachusetts, throwing his arms in
the air in frustration. "Some charge fees for baggage, some charge
fees for oxygen, who knows?"
Bill Shuster, chairman of the House of Representatives'
transportation committee, said: "If airlines don't get their act
together, we are going to act; it is going to be one size fits all.
Seize this opportunity because if you don't, we're going to come,
and you're not going to like it."
After the hearing, Munoz said the message that change was needed was
loud and clear.
"I think the sense in the room was one of an admonition to get your
collective stuff together," Munoz told reporters at the Capitol. The
alternative is to face additional legislation, "which I think is
fair," he added.
In response to the dragging incident, United has changed its
policies by reducing overbooked flights and offering passengers who
give up their seats up to $10,000.
Airlines have said they routinely overbook flights because a small
percentage of passengers do not show up.
Delta Air Lines <DAL.N> declined to testify. In a statement, the
airline said it was working with individual members of Congress on
customer service issues.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Amanda Becker in
Washington; Writing by Roberta Rampton and Amanda Becker; Editing by
Richard Chang and Lisa Shumaker)
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