ATW Editor's Blog

US lawmakers are angry, but want airlines to self-regulate

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Today’s congressional hearing on US airline customer service was certainly a venting exercise for lawmakers. The question is, will this new wave of airline bashing stop at angry words or be followed by regulation?

Much will depend on what happens through the rest of this year. US airlines have rushed in a set of promises following the April 9 United bumped-and-dragged passenger incident. Southwest will no longer overbook flights from next week; American now monitors every flight that is oversold and gets involved earlier to find volunteers and has established a dedicated hotline for its day of departure desk so gate agents can offer compensation that will entice voluntary seat give-ups where needed. American and United have changed policy to never involuntarily remove a customer who is already seated. United’s mea culpa list is 10 points long and includes increasing customer compensation for voluntary denied boarding to up to $10,000. As one congressman noted during today’s hearing, there may now be stampedes to get first to a United gate to be bumped.

But many of the House transport & infrastructure committee members who grilled United CEO Oscar Munoz and president Scott Kirby – and, to a lesser extent, other airline executives from Alaska, American and Southwest – mostly used their five minutes to make it clear that they are themselves frequent fliers. While some mentioned concerns for the flying public, their constituents, the impression was of lawmakers outraged because this is personal to them.

And it was interesting that despite the outrage, there were also several comments – especially from the Republicans – that they don’t believe government should interfere in businesses. The message was: Hear our anger and do something about it so we don’t have to.

Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) spelled it out. “In every bad situation you usually find a silver lining and if the airline industry doesn’t find a silver lining, we are going to act and that should be the takeaway from today. Seize this opportunity because if you don’t, you are not going to like it,” he said.

So it may be that the venting will be enough. But this will depend very much on US airlines avoiding another major incident through this year, or, at the very least, handling any incidents in a far better way than United initially did. If ever there was a time for airlines to brush up on their crisis communications protocols, it's now.

A few other observations about today’s hearing that struck me (I was in the room): First, the name Republic was never mentioned, even though that was the airline that operated the infamous flight 3411 as a United Express service. In the litany of airline practices that the congressmen questioned or grouched about, maintaining common service standards across regional affiliate carriers was barely touched upon. Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) complained to the American Airlines executive about an Air Wisconsin flight that he said had “the worse seat I have ever had – like a bus with propellers; like a civil rights era bus”, but there was no follow up on regional carrier operations.

Indeed, most of the practices that the congressmen complained about, including overbooking, fees for ticket changes and checked bags, had nothing to do with what led to the United incident or the American Airlines incident involving a mother and a stroller.

Also, while most of the heat was definitely directed at Munoz, much of the complaining was about US airlines in general and there were repeated references to the consolidation that has led to four major carriers holding more than 80% of the US domestic market. The lawmakers lamented what they see as a lack of competition and linked that to poor customer service – some even referred to it as a broken system.

And finally, it was notable that Munoz repeatedly deferred to Kirby – the president he hired away from American and who has decades of airline management experience – on several of the congressmen’s questions. Essentially, Kirby provided the deeper explanations of airline operations. Munoz's job today was to say sorry, again, and to pledge that flight 3411 will never happen again. “It was a mistake of epic proportions,” he said.

Karen Walker Karen.walker@penton.com

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