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DeFazio to U.S. Airlines: Get Your House In Order

May 3, 2017
Press Release

For Immediate Release:  May 2, 2017

Contact:

Jen Gilbreath Adler (DeFazio), 202-225-4472

DeFazio to U.S.  Airlines: Get Your House In Order

In case you missed it, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) delivered the following remarks at the May 2, 2017 oversight hearing on U.S. airline customer service.

Delivered remarks can be found here.

Remarks as prepared for delivery are below

 

Statement of

the Honorable Peter A. DeFazio
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Hearing on

“Oversight of U.S. Airline Customer Service”

May 2, 2017

            Following the recent, highly publicized incident on United Airlines, I, together with several of my colleagues, requested a hearing on U.S. airline customer service. Thank you, Chairman Shuster, for calling today’s hearing.

            Today’s hearing is the culmination of error after error by the biggest U.S. airlines. Last summer, millions of people were stranded and displaced for days by major computer meltdowns at two airlines, including Southwest, which is represented here today. Airplanes often don’t have a single empty seat, and passengers’ and employees’ patience is tested every day by today’s flying experience. Last month, an American Airlines flight attendant was caught on video attempting to goad a customer into a physical fight; and, of course, the Nation and the world were subjected to the unsettling footage of Dr. David Dao being dragged off a United Express flight, bloody after refusing to give up the seat he paid for and occupied, so that the airline’s own employees could fly at the last minute.

Mr. Munoz, I know that you have apologized repeatedly for what Dr. Dao endured. I’m interested in what you can tell us today to guarantee that it does not happen again.

During my first term in Congress, I introduced the Airline Passenger Equity Act to keep commercial airlines accountable to their passengers. Among other things, the bill required commercial airline carriers to report information regarding flight delays, cancellations, reroutings, luggage status performance, and bumped passengers. Some of these provisions were included in the Airline Passenger Protection Act of 1987, but some 30 years and several passenger protection bills later, it appears there is still more work to do.

That’s why I am again gathering ideas for a passenger bill of rights to improve airline passengers’ experience and restore fairness and basic rights in air travel. I expect this hearing to be instructive and I look forward to working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle as I develop this legislation.

In addition, today, Aviation Subcommittee Ranking Member Larsen and I are requesting that the Government Accountability Office study what more Congress and the Department of Transportation (DOT) can do to remedy what has gone wrong with the airline system.

            Over the past decade, the airlines have undergone massive consolidation. As a result of these mergers, the four largest carriers control more than 80 percent of the market, compared to less than one-half a decade ago, and dominate many airport hubs. And where has that left the traveling public?

  • With packed planes. Aircraft load factors are approaching a 15-year high (82.4 percent full on average last year).
  • With denied boardings (more than 40,000 paying passengers were denied boarding involuntarily last year).
  •  But without the choice of airlines that passengers enjoyed a decade and a half ago.

And, of course, even if you get on the flight, you may be delayed. Although airlines like to blame “air traffic control” and the weather for flight delays, it is important to note that more than 60 percent of delays are caused by factors within the airlines’ control.

            And what recourse do passengers have?

Well, not much. Most of the rights of airline passengers are buried in U.S. carriers’ contracts of carriage. These documents are lengthy, difficult to understand, vague, and full of illusory promises. Airlines basically say, “We’ll do our best to get you from Point A to Point B, but sorry in advance if we bump you or we’re late,” and often reserve their sole discretion to choose how they will fulfill their responsibilities to you. And, “if you need to change your plans, that will be $200 or perhaps $300, thanks.”

These are the contracts of carriage for the passengers traveling on the airlines testifying at today’s hearing. According to my staff, these contracts range from 20 pages to 67 pages in length, and consist of as many as 37,000 words. It is absurd to think travelers would read and understand these contracts before flying. But, even if consumers did read the contracts and didn’t like the terms, they don’t have a lot of options.

I’ve been an advocate of airline consumer rights since I was elected to Congress. But never has the U.S. airline market been so concentrated under the control of so few mega-carriers, with so much power.

They compete on price, not quality of service. Perhaps the mega-carriers’ IT failures best illustrate the point. In the last two years alone, airline IT system failures have caused 36 significant disruptions to airline operations. It took massive IT failures last summer for Southwest and Delta to begin to invest in new systems. That’s why Ranking Member Larsen and I introduced H.R. 1420, the “Know Before You Fly Act”, two months ago. This legislation requires airlines to provide information to the public regarding their policies for imposing baggage fees and assisting passengers during a widespread disruption of service.

            The major airlines have concentrated their market control; virtually ignored their own IT infrastructure until massive meltdowns forced them to begin to invest; and missed the mark on customer service by a mile, as evidenced by the United and American incidents last month.

Yet, many of these same airlines want Congress to privatize the Nation’s air traffic control system and put them in effective control of the corporation’s governing board. I think the airline industry needs to focus on getting its own house in order, instead of extending its reach to control of our skies. The airlines’ lack of focus on the traveling public and the repeated failures to invest in IT infrastructure only add to the many reasons I will continue to oppose their efforts to privatize air traffic control.

            With that, Chairman Shuster, I again thank you for holding today’s hearing.