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United airplane flying above the clouds.
Image courtesy of United Airlines.

A government report shows airline complaints have risen 70% over last April’s numbers, driven in part by a series of high-profile cases involving abused passengers.

Complaints for April 2017 totaled in at a staggering 1,909, according to a U.S. Department of Transportation summary picked by The New York Times.

April was a particularly tumultuous month for the industry. On April 9th, United passenger David Dao was manhandled and dragged off an overbooked flight after he refused to give up his seat upon request. Video and photographs showing Dao’s bloodied face made their way across the Internet.

The story of Dao, a doctor and refugee of the Vietnam War, ending up with missing teeth and a broken nose over an overbooked flight culminated in a public relations disaster and settled lawsuit for United. It also prompted passengers on airlines to begin recording more instances of abuse of authority on other airlines.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 2, 2017, before a House Transportation Committee oversight hearing. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Congress has threatened action against major carriers, and is considering taking up passenger rights in a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration.

“If airlines don’t get their act together, we are going to act, it is going to be one size fits all,” said Bill Shuster, chairman of the House of Representatives’ transportation committee at a hearing held in May. “Seize this opportunity, because if you don’t, we’re going to come, and you’re not going to like it.”

Shuster and his colleagues called in a number of high-profile captains of the airline industry for grilling, including United’s chief executive officer, Oscar Munoz.

Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA), even went so far as to accuse Munoz and his cohorts of being anti-American in their policymaking.

“Why do you hate the American people?” Hunter asked. “I was going to ask how much do you hate the American people, but I’m not going to ask that.”

Rep. Hunter argued that airlines have created a business environment almost entirely devoid of competition, in which high fares make boycotts and public reactions to abuse almost nonconsequential.

Following the Dao incident, Southwest Airlines promised to end the promise of overbooking flights – a tactic employed by most businesses in the industry on the expectation that a certain number of passengers won’t show up at boarding.

United also announced policy changes, including an increase in compensation for overbooked passengers to $10,000.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told Congress last week that the department had created a new webpage to highlight passenger protections but hadn’t yet created or endorsed any new legal protections. According to the NYT, Chao said it was in the best interests of airlines to “treat passengers with respect.”

Sources

United CEO testifies to angry lawmakers: ‘I have spent every day thinking about how we got here’

U.S. Airline Passenger Complaints Jump 70 Percent After Incidents

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