United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz pauses while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, before a House Transportation Committee oversight hearing. (Associated Press)

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz pauses while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, before a House Transportation Committee oversight hearing. (Associated Press)

Editorial: Back airline promises with consumer protections

By The Herald Editorial Board

Even though United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz botched his initial reaction to a United passenger being roughed up, knocked unconscious and dragged off a flight because he refused to give up his seat, the head of the airlines corrected his flight path and said the right words and struck the right tone while speaking during a congressional hearing Tuesday.

Munoz called the incident a “horrible failure” on several levels, as reported by The Washington Post and other media. Munoz admitted to members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure that during the April 9 incident in which passenger David Dao was removed from Flight 3411 at Chicago’s O’Hare airport:

The airline attempted to seat a United crew on an overbooked flight at the last minute when all passengers had been seated.

It didn’t offer enough compensation to get passengers to volunteer to be bumped from the flight.

And law enforcement shouldn’t have been called in to forcibly remove Dao when security and safety were not at issue.

(Many might also like to know why a law enforcement agency — the Chicago Department of Aviation — agreed to intervene in a situation that didn’t involve safety or security, but that’s another editorial.)

Munoz pledged to the committee members that the incident had prompted a “culture change” and the airline had rewritten its policy, including a rule that bars law enforcement from boarding a flight unless safety or security are threatened, increasing its compensation offer to up to $10,000 in flight vouchers to encourage passengers to give up an overbooked seat and committing to not remove passengers after they’ve been seated.

You can imagine other airline CEOs taking a red pen to copies of their own policies regarding overbooked flights.

But Congress is right in asking for more than promises.

“There will come a day when Americans won’t accept your apology,” Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Massachusetts, said during the hearing.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Washington, ranking member of the committee’s aviation subcommittee, criticized United for “making your problem the customer’s problem.”

The 40,000 passengers who were bumped from flights last year are a small fraction of the 929 million who flew, but the Flight 3411 incident points to the perceived divide between the rights of paying customers and the responsibilities of an industry that earned record profits last year.

New rules and legislation should be considered to back up airline promises.

Just prior to the Flight 3411 debacle, Larsen and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, introduced the Know Before You Fly Act in March, legislation that would require airlines to disclose charges for baggage and other fees before tickets are purchased. It also would require airlines to outline what services, such as food, hotel vouchers and seats on another airline are offered in the event of mass flight delays and cancelations caused by computer network failures. Tens of thousands of flights, affecting millions of passengers, were grounded because of such failures in 2015 and 2016.

Larsen and DeFazio, the ranking member on the transportation committee, have also asked the head of the Government Accountability Office to review the federal Department of Transportation’s consumer protection rules for airlines.

The letter to the GAO comptroller general notes earlier steps taking by the transportation agency to enhance consumer protections, but criticizes its recent tabling of rulemaking in regard to new passenger protections, following an order by President Trump that has frozen consideration of new regulations throughout the federal government.

Larsen and DeFazio are asking for a study that outlines the Department of Transportation’s consumer protections, how those vary from the policies of airlines, how airline practices toward consumers have changed since rules went into effect, the trends of consumer complaints and how the agency is enforcing its consumer protections.

Airline passengers, of course, can use their ticket purchases to show whether they are impressed by Munoz’s pledges that United has taken seriously what happened aboard Flight 3411, and that it won’t happen again. But stronger legal protections from Congress, rules by agencies and penalties when rules are violated would provide the assurance that it won’t.

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