As airline executives were called last week before a congressional committee, the contentious meeting was perhaps best summed up by a representative from Georgia. “You know you’re having a bad day when the group that lectures you on customer service is Congress,” said Republican Rob Woodall.
Indeed. These have been trying times for airlines, which are facing increased scrutiny over their policies and their customer relations. And while the executives — especially United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz — demonstrated contrition and promised changes for the benefit of consumers, it will be up to Congress to bring those words to fruition.
The hearing before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure was the result of an incident last month in which passenger David Dao was violently removed from a United Airlines flight after refusing to give up his seat on an overbooked plane. Dao reportedly suffered a broken nose, a slight concussion, and lost two teeth while being dragged from the plane. Last week, he reached an undisclosed settlement with the airline.
The incident highlighted the frustration of many airline passengers, bringing to the forefront concerns about baggage fees and flight delays and a perceived arrogance in how companies deal with consumers. It also touched a nerve with many members of the congressional committee. “This issue is not going away. We’re not going away,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the committee’s chairman. “If we don’t see meaningful results that improve customer service, the next time this committee meets to address the issue, I can assure you won’t like the outcome.”
Such an admonishment amounts to little more than enabling from Congress. And it brings up a simple question: Why wait to act? As an analysis in The Washington Post put it, “Congress could call a vote and adopt an airline passenger bill of rights in the time it takes to drag a person off an airplane.”
This would not be an issue if the airline industry were truly an open marketplace. Instead, mergers over the years have left four companies in charge of most flights and left consumers with few options when booking a trip. Because of that, here are some starting points for Congress to consider:
▪ Simplify contracts of carriage, which are the deals that passengers agree to when booking a flight. Some agreements run to tens of thousands of words, creating confusion among travelers about their rights when dealing with airlines.
▪ Make fees more transparent. Airlines have kept prices low by, in part, adding a phalanx of fees. Fees should be clearly spelled out in order to avoid the sticker shock felt by many passengers.
▪ Regulate minimum seat standards. Seats have grown smaller in an effort to squeeze more passengers onto planes, leading to a less comfortable flying experience.
▪ Limit the overbooking of planes. Airlines long have overbooked flights with the understanding that some passengers will miss their flight by arriving late to the airport or because of overdue connecting flights. If this practice is allowed to continue, companies should be compelled to offer incentives to lure enough passengers to give up their seats, rather than randomly selecting some for mandatory removal.
Congressional members were wise to heed the frustration of customers as they confronted airline officials this week. But action from representatives would be preferable to finger-wagging and verbal admonishments.