Following the forcible removal of an airline passenger on April 9, 2017, Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who serve respectively as the chairman and ranking member of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation along with Blunt and the subcommittee ranking member, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), sent letters of inquiry to United Airlines and the Chicago Department of Aviation, which operates O’Hare International Airport, on April 11. The committee received responses on April 26. United Airlines announced policy changes on April 27 developed in the aftermath of the incident designed to avoid such incidents in the future.
- Commissioner Ginger S. Evans, Chicago Department of Aviation
- Ms. Sally Greenberg, Executive Director, National Consumers League
- Mr. Scott Kirby, President, United Airlines
- Ms. Sara Nelson, International President, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO
- Ms. Sharon Pinkerton, Senior Vice President, Legislative and Regulatory Policy, Airlines for America
Thursday, May 4, 2017
Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security
This hearing will take place in Russell Senate Office Building, Room 253. Witness testimony, opening statements, and a live video of the hearing will be available on www.commerce.senate.gov.
Chairman Roy Blunt
Good morning. Thank you to the witnesses for appearing before this Subcommittee today.
We have before us:
- Ms. Ginger Evans, Commissioner, Chicago Department of Aviation;
Mr. Scott Kirby, President, United Airlines;
- Ms. Sharon Pinkerton, Senior Vice President for Legislative and Regulatory Policy, Airlines for America;
- Ms. Sara Nelson, International President, Association of Flight Attendants; and
- Ms. Sally Greenberg, Executive Director, National Consumers League.
It’s impossible to ignore the public outcry at recent incidents involving passengers, airline employees, and airport police. One of the most widely reported incidents was the forced removal of a passenger from United Airlines Flight 3411 on April 9, 2017. This incident was nothing short of disturbing.
In the wake of this incident, I, along with Ranking Member Cantwell, Chairman Thune, and full committee Ranking Member Nelson, said: “The last thing a paying airline customer should expect is a physical altercation with law enforcement personnel after boarding, especially one that could likely have been avoided.”
The purpose of today’s hearing is to follow up on the letters we sent to, and the responses we received from, both the Chicago Department of Aviation and United Airlines regarding this incident. What went wrong? What was the decision-making that led to these particular passengers being bumped after they already boarded and were sitting on the plane? How did that decision escalate to a point where a passenger was physically pulled out of his seat, dragged down the aisle, and left bloodied on national television?
And, most importantly, what are airlines and airport authorities doing to ensure an incident like this never happens again?
As the title of this hearing makes clear, this is about asking questions. But even more importantly, it’s about getting answers for the traveling public. However, this subcommittee would be remiss if we focused exclusively on one incident.
There are broader questions we need to examine regarding the airline industry and its treatment of the traveling public. There are also hard questions to ask regarding the way frustrated passengers treat airline employees, including flight attendants and gate agents.
These front line employees are tasked with de-escalating conflicts, and exist as much for the security of airline passengers as they do to serve them.
Today is an opportunity for all the witnesses to tell this Subcommittee and its Members, as well as the constituents we represent and the general public watching, how seriously you take these matters and what you’re doing to prevent them.
I look forward to your testimony, and I turn now to Ranking Member Cantwell.
Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member Cantwell – I appreciate the opportunity to say a few words.
The impetus for today’s hearing is certainly the disturbing incident that took place on United Airlines a few weeks ago.
What happened to Dr. Dao that day was just unconscionable.
Barring any safety or security reasons – which certainly was not the case here – no passenger should ever be treated like this by an airline.
I understand United has made several changes following this incident, and I appreciate those efforts.
But there are larger issues here and they’re not just about United.
The airline industry in this country has become anticompetitive and consumers are being hurt in the process.
Passengers feel like they’re being treated as self-loading cargo rather than valued consumers. They feel taken advantage of and they’re clearly sick and tired of it. In fact, they’re so sick and tired, many have taken to holding the airlines accountable themselves by using their cell phone to record incidents where they or their fellow passengers are being unfairly or unjustly treated.
I take no pleasure in beating up the airlines, but in this case, it’s warranted
We have all experienced firsthand or heard from our folks back home about incidents such as:
An explosion of fees for services such as checked baggage, priority boarding, and assigned seating that are not always clear.
Airline I.T. systems failing and causing prolonged confusion and delay.
Passengers with disabilities having to deal with poorly trained personnel or whose wheelchairs are mishandled and damaged
And, adding insult to injury, just yesterday we learned that American Airlines is slashing legroom in its new Boeing 737 jets to squeeze ten more passengers on its planes.
While these are certainly not new complaints, they seem to be getting worse in the public’s eye. The fact is we wouldn’t be sitting here today if the traveling public believed the airlines cared more about them than their own bottom lines.
Two years ago, I released a report on the airlines lack of transparency on the growing number of fees charged to passengers that called on the airlines to stop nickel-and-diming the traveling public.
What has happened since? Fees continue to go up while the airlines fight behind the scenes in Washington to kill any proposal that could provide protections or relief to the traveling public.
Compounding all of this is the fact that many consumers don’t have lot of choices if they are fed up with the service at their local airport.
According to a recent study from the U.S. Travel Association, one of the four biggest domestic airlines (American, Delta, Southwest, and United) currently controls over 50 percent of seat capacity on flights out of 155 U.S. airports.
And 74 of those airports are 100 percent controlled by one airline.
As an airline traveler, that doesn’t sound real competitive to me.
So here we are, with an industry facing self-inflicted PR problems, sitting before us asking for our forgiveness and to allow them to fix their own problems.
Mr. Chairman, I’m a strong believer in redemption and I truly hope the airlines are sincere and their corrective actions match their words. Like most Americans, I do want a return to the friendly skies. Airline travel shouldn’t be amongst our list of most dreaded things to do.
That said, let me be clear, this committee isn’t just going to sit back and take a wait and see approach. We’ve acted in a bipartisan fashion in the past to protect the flying public and we’re prepared to do so again when we begin work later this year on the FAA reauthorization bill.
With that, I look forward to hearing from our witnesses.
Witness Panel 1
Commissioner Ginger S. EvansChicago Department of Aviation
Ms. Sally GreenburgExecutive DirectorNational Consumers League
Mr. Scott KirbyPresidentUnited Airlines
Ms. Sara NelsonInternational PresidentAssociation of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO
Ms. Sharon PinkertonSenior Vice President of Legislative and Regulatory PolicyAirlines for America