Thursday, May 4, 2017

Senators Grill Aviation Officials Over Customer Service: Lawmakers discuss possible tougher oversight, including a passenger bill of rights, in the wake of United incident

The Wall Street Journal
By Susan Carey and  Doug Cameron
Updated May 4, 2017 3:27 p.m. ET

U.S. Senators on Thursday turned on the airline industry as lawmakers discussed possible tougher oversight, including a passenger bill of rights, in the wake of mounting disquiet over customer service.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) said he was pursuing a passenger bill that could include punitive damages on airlines for flight delays alongside an array of customer-service guarantees.

“I take no pleasure in beating up on the airlines, but in this case it is warranted,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) at a hearing convened by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, following the forcible removal of a passenger from a United Express flight last month.

Sen. Nelson proceeded to give everything from carriers’ information technology systems to damaged airport wheelchairs a bashing. Many passengers “have become self-described detectives” using their cellphones to record bad customer service, he said.

The hearing comes two days after airline executives, including Oscar Munoz, chief executive of United Continental Holdings Inc., faced intense questioning from members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on airlines’ treatment of fliers. Lawmakers warned carriers that they faced more regulations if they don’t improve customer service.

On Thursday, the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation, Ginger Evans, whose officers dragged a passenger from the United Express flight in April, told the hearing that the aviation officers are “not the designated law-enforcement authority” at the airports but split duties with the city’s police officers. On the day of the April 9 incident, which she described as “completely unacceptable,” city police arrived after airport officers and didn’t become involved, she said.

The aviation department placed three officers and a supervisor on leave, pending a disciplinary hearing, and the city’s inspector general is reviewing the incident on a United Express flight at O’Hare International Airport.

Meanwhile, Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told lawmakers that frontline staff face tougher criticism from passengers following last month’s incident, making it harder to do their job.

“Flight attendants are caught in the middle, and safety and security will suffer,” she said at the hearing, adding that flight attendants more frequently have to deal with escalating passenger situations. She said there are now fewer attendants assigned per plane and more passengers per flight, putting more strain on each attendant.

Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, blamed lack of competition for deteriorating customer service. The power “has become dangerously imbalanced” due to massive consolidation in the U.S. industry.

She said there are steps airline should take, such as ending involuntary bumping, providing simpler information to passengers and reviewing charges for some ancillary services and flight changes. She advocated a U.S. shift to European Union rules that richly compensate passengers for late, canceled and overbooked flights.

But Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president at trade group Airlines for America, defended the industry’s efforts to invest in customer service. “Airline competition is intense; it’s thriving,” she said.

In the past month, United has apologized profusely, reached an undisclosed settlement with the passenger, Dr. David Dao, and announced a raft of new policies and training initiatives to ensure no repeats of the debacle. United’s settlement appears to absolve Chicago from liability.

Other airlines, in the wake of that incident, also have announced some new policies aimed at minimizing overbooking on their planes, raising the compensation offered to passengers who voluntarily give up their seats and pledging not to remove passengers who have already boarded.

Sen. Nelson said lawmakers would act in a bipartisan fashion to protect the flying public and is prepared to do so when it takes up the reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration, whose mandate expires at the end of September. Legislation to reauthorize the agency and its funding could be an opportunity to add language pertaining to consumers.

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