Airlines blasted for poor customer service, inattention to passengers' rights


House Republicans and Democrats threatened top US airline executives with legislation if they fail to improve customer service in the wake of an incident last month involving a United Airlines passenger who was injured while being forcibly dragged from a plane so a crew member could take his seat.

The situation on the United flight is a symptom of consolidation in the airline industry to just four major carriers, and Congress needs to enact new passenger protections, William McGee, aviation consultant for the nonprofit group Consumers Union, said in his testimony.

Today, United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz apologised in a congressional hearing in Washington for the incident.

"Seize this opportunity because if you don't, we're gonna come - and you're not gonna like it", Shuster said.

Shuster provided no specifics on what steps Congress would take.

Mr Munoz vowed to do better as he and other airline executives faced tough questions from legislators.

"It was a mistake of epic proportions, in hindsight", Munoz said.

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"Congress will not hesitate to act when your customers, our constituents. are not treated the way they deserve", said committee chairman Bill Shuster.

Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.): "Unless we figure out a way to guarantee that customers are coming first, you're going to see more of that", she said.

"This is a turning point for United, and our 87,000 professionals", he said.

The incident ignited a debate about poor service and a lack of customer-friendly policies on United States airlines.

Delta Air Lines raised its cap on incentives to persuade overbooked passengers to give up their seats to $9,950 after the United incident, and United boosted its cap to $10,000.

"We have a problem that shouldn't be as bad and unpleasant as it is and you're the only people who can fix it, and I encourage you to do so", he said.

"We failed", United CEO Oscar Munoz, who's endured weeks of criticism for the incident and the airline's response to it, told the House committee.

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United's president, Scott Kirby, defended fees and overbooking of flights as helping the carriers keep fares lower for passengers.

"What happened on United Express flight 3411 can not happen again", said Rep. Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat who is his party's senior member on the committee's aviation subcommittee.

Southwest said last week it would upgrade its reservation system and change its cancellation policy to end overbooking altogether. In addition to United executives, Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans, who oversees O'Hare and Midway airports, will appear to testify to explain the actions of her department's security officers, who dragged Dao off the plane. Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, and Florida Rep. Neal Dunn, a Republican, have separately proposed bills that would prevent airlines from removing passengers from their seats, The Hill reported.

"We know we have some catching up to do", testified Kerry Philipovitch, senior vice president of customer experience at American Airlines.

Dr. Dao was injured during the April incident that created a firestorm for the airline.

The company has been weathering a PR nightmare after video spread of the doctor being dragged off the plane earlier this month, which sparked mass outrage, a federal investigation, and a first-class lawsuit settlement.

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