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United Airlines (N27964) Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner departing Sydney Airport; image by Bidgee, CC BY-SA 3.0 AU, via Wikimedia Commons, no changes.
United Airlines (N27964) Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner departing Sydney Airport; image by Bidgee, CC BY-SA 3.0 AU, via Wikimedia Commons, no changes.

Senators grilled United Airlines President Scott Kirby twice last week, apparently skeptical of the company’s promises to improve customer service procedures and transparency polices.

Since the forceful removal of passenger David Dao from an overbooked flight in the second week of April.

The incident, made infamous by footage of Dr. Dao being manhandled by black-clad O’Hare security officers, has energized lawmakers to take on aviation’s bigger players.

Members of the Senate Aviation Committee paid little heed to Kirby’s apologies and promises, noting the April ‘re-accommodation’ of Dao is indicative of a larger tend.

“It’s certainly impossible to ignore the public outcry,” said committee member Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO).

Blunt was speaking of consumer displeasure with an assortment of controversial airline practices. United, along with its competition, has been accused of levying high and unfair fees for baggage and itinerary changes. Senators also broached the subject of legroom, which has increasingly become a commodity on flights.

The wider discourse which has occurred before and after the Dao incident has led to some senators pondering the possible creation of a ‘Passenger Bill of Rights,’ which would likely set some universal standards American airlines would have to abide by.

“I take no pleasure in beating up on the airlines, but in this case, it is warranted and it’s a good thing we’re having this hearing,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). He’d earlier told Kirby that passengers are “sick and tired” of being receiving poor treatment from airlines.

The Hill reports Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) as adding on that airlines have “no excuse for dehumanizing passengers,” referring to the manhandling of Dao.

“It would be safe to say all of us were deeply disturbed by the images of Dr. Dao, bloodied and dazed, being dragged from the aisle of a plane last month,” she said.

“For a passenger who presented no threat to safety or security of flight [sic] to be treated that way, is completely unnecessary and unacceptable,” Cantwell continued.

United CEO Oscar Munoz responded to some of the criticism by repeating apologies and revising the airline’s policy for providing compensation to passengers involuntarily denied boarding. Munoz also said that United would no longer involve law enforcement or security personnel in disputes not related to safety.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz; image by Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation), CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped.
United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz; image by Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation), CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons, cropped.

Nevertheless, Cantwell and other senators continued to point out pitfalls of the airlines’ treatment of passengers.

“The airlines are treating passengers like an algorithm,” Cantwell said. “They’re part of a computer-based system, where when you want to take someone off a flight you go to the person who isn’t a frequent flier, paid the lowest fare, the last boarding time.”

Further questions by the Committee echoed fears that United might not bother to alter its current system of policies much, considering the power major airlines wield.

Pointing out that United’s stock had already recovered following a boycott of the airline, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) asked, “How are your boardings? Do you have as many bookings as before? How’s your stock been in the last three weeks since this incident?”

When Kirby responded that stock and bookings had taken a dive shortly after the Dao incident but recovered not long afterward, Wicker said, “You’ve got passengers right where you want them.

“If the passengers want to boycott United because of this incident, they really don’t have a way to boycott you, do they?”

Sources

United apologizes again as more legislators vow to crack down on airlines

United Airlines grilled at Senate hearing

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