Angry lawmakers vented their frustration at US airline executives during a congressional hearing on airline customer service Tuesday, threatening to legislate if airlines don’t step up their game.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz was among those who testified at the May 2 House transportation and infrastructure committee hearing, which was prompted by the April 9 incident when a passenger on a United Express aircraft was forcibly removed from the aircraft to make way for a crew member. Video of law enforcement officers dragging the passenger down the aisle went viral and created worldwide public outrage. Munoz’s initial response and delay before issuing a full apology exacerbated the situation.

Munoz, who has since announced a new set of policies at United and promised that a passenger will never again be involuntarily removed once seated unless there is a safety or security issue, reiterated his apologies during his testimony to the committee.

“I am personally sorry for the fact that my immediate response failed to communicate my concern and the devotion I have to our customers and to this company,” he said. “For the last three weeks, I have spent every day thinking about how we got here … This is a turning point for United.”

But for some congressmen, it was still not enough. Several lawmakers pointed out that they were frequent fliers themselves and some related their own stories of poor airline customer service, delays or canceled flights.

“Air travel can be a stressful experience as many of us on this dais knows,” committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) said in his opening statement. “Getting to the airport, checking in, getting to your gate on time can rattle even the most seasoned traveler. But the whole process starts with the purchase of a ticket. When on our constituents buys that ticket, there is an expectation that they will be treated fairly and with respect by the airlines.

“One of the fundamental rules of any successful business is that the customer comes first. So something is clearly broken when we see passengers being treated the way some have been treated on recent flights … it’s just common decency and common sense,” Shuster said.

Shuster and several other committee members warned that if they did not see change, they would it enforce it through regulation.

“As a general rule, I don’t believe in over-burdening our businesses with regulation or re-regulating industries, but I shouldn’t need to remind you that Congress will not hesitate to act to ensure your customers are treated with respect,” Shuster said. “If we don’t see meaningful results, the next time this committee meets to address this issue, I can assure you, you will not like the outcome.”

Executives from Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines also gave testimony. United’s president, Scott Kirby, was also present and fielded several of the committee’s questions.

“In truth, these problems are not specific to United Airlines,” Rick Larsen (D-Washington) said, noting that he and fellow committee member Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) had that morning requested a Government Accountability Office report on consumer protections for airline passengers.

Among the wide-ranging complaints of business practices that committee members leveled at the airline executives were overbooking, shrinking economy seat pitch and width, charges to change tickets, checked bag fees, IT system meltdowns, delays caused by factors within the airline’s control, and high load factors.

Another issue that was brought up repeatedly was lengthy and difficult-to-understand airline contracts of carriage.  Some lawmakers waved examples of these contracts.

“These contracts range from 20 to 67 pages in length and consist of as many as 37,000 words. It is absurd to think travelers would read and understand these contracts before flying. But even if they did and didn’t like the terms, they don’t have a lot of options,” DeFazio said.

The airline executives were pushed to see if they would be willing to simplify their contracts; one lawmaker even wanted each contract to be reduced to a single page.

Some committee members also linked poor customer service with airlines’ desire to reform US air traffic management and separate it from federal control.

“Many of these same airlines want Congress to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system and put them in effective control of the corporation’s governing board. I think the airline industry needs to focus on getting its own house in order instead of extending its reach to control our skies,” DeFazio said.

The airline executives stressed the customer-focused initiatives they already have in place or are introducing. Alaska Airlines SVP-external relations Joseph Sprague  said Alaska was actively reviewing sensitive customer policies such as overbooking and was looking to further reduce its involuntary denied boarding from an already low of just .004%.

“We are updating our policies to make explicit that our customer service agents are empowered to do the right thing for our guests, including having discretion over compensation,” Sprague said. “At Alaska Airlines, we view the airline business as fundamentally a people business. If we have angry customers, no one wins”

Southwest Airlines EVP & CCO Bob Jordan noted Southwest will launch a major upgrade of its reservation system on May 9, has announced it will no longer overbook flights from May 8, and has always maintained a no-fee policy for ticket changes or checked bags.

“We say that if you are going to travel, it makes sense that you are going to bring your clothes along,” Jordan said.

Karen Walker Karen.walker@penton.com