Bart Jansen USA TODAY
United Debacle Spurs a Call for Passenger Rights
May 4, 2017
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  • Several senators said Thursday that the United Airlines debacle of dragging a passenger off a flight will spur legislation protecting passengers from bumping, change fees and smaller seating space.

    “I think it may be time for a new passenger bill of rights,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said at a hearing of the Senate Transportation subcommittee on aviation.

    But airlines countered that they are changing policies voluntarily in the wake of the April 9 dragging incident. United and other airlines are offering more compensation to passengers when flights are oversold and won’t ask police to remove seated passengers from flights.

    “I think what we’ve seen today is that airlines recognize that we need to step up customer service,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy for Airlines for America. “We’re willing to do that voluntarily.”

    The head of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said at a similar hearing Tuesday that he was reluctant to legislate if airlines would improve customer service on their own.

    Nothing may come of the consumer proposals. But policy legislation for the Federal Aviation Administration expires Sept. 30, so lawmakers are likely to debate the various issues this summer.

    “Consumers are angry,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the advocacy group National Consumers League, who urged minimum space for seats, lavatories and aisles, and for compensation for delayed or canceled flights. “They are frustrated.”

    Seating drew attention at the hearing because American Airlines just announced that some seats on its newest aircraft would be 29 inches apart, rather than the current 31 inches. Such a change moves American closer to the tight seating offered at no-frills rivals such as Frontier and Spirit.

    But consumer advocates and lawmakers worried about seating getting more cramped. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has proposed requiring a minimum space between seats, and other senators said the idea could be revived.

    “Americans are getting bigger – we’re getting heavier – and we’re being crammed into smaller and smaller spaces,” Greenberg said.

    Fees for changing flights and for checking luggage also drew the spotlight.

    Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he recently got the airport early enough to catch an earlier flight that was loading when he reached the gate. Despite having seats available, he was told it would cost $75 to switch.

    “It was a policy of the airline that made no sense,” Nelson said.

    Airlines routinely charge $200 to change or cancel a domestic flight, which is sometimes more than the fare itself. Also on the menu at some airlines: “stand-by” fees of up to $75 to switch to same-day flights, even when seats are available. Overall, airlines charged nearly $2.9 billion in change fees last year.

    Airlines acknowledge having the fees to discourage flight changes, so they can more accurately predict how many people will board a plane. But the fees are also a point of competition, with Southwest Airlines not charging the fees.

    United Airlines President Scott Kirby told senators that tickets are offered that can be changed, but they are more expensive. Cheaper fares come with more restrictions.

    “The goal is to offer low fares,” Kirby said. “I recognize the frustration around change fees.”

    Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., proposed to limit change fees to the administrative cost of changing a booking, which is expected to be negligible. Markey would also limit baggage fees, which totaled nearly $4.2 billion last year.

    “Passengers are getting tipped upside down at the ticket counter and deserve relieve from these excessive fees,” Markey said. “The airlines seem to have replaced the customer service counter with the customer suffering counter.”

    Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., proposed to prohibit police from taking passengers off planes, as United has agreed not to request any more. He also proposed to raise the compensation for bumping a passenger from the current cap of $1,350, and to force compensation for flight delays and cancellations.

    “Those kinds of rules are completely inadequate,” Blumenthal said of current standards.

    For cancellations in Europe a week before a flight, when other flights aren’t available within an hour or two of the previous schedule, passengers get about $275 compensation for short flights or more than $650 for long flights.

    For flight delays in Europe, depending on the length of flight and delay, passengers are offered meals and hotel accommodations.

    But Pinkerton, who represents the industry group, urged lawmakers not to legislate in economic areas because that is where airlines compete, which is what results in lower fares.

    “A one-size-fits-all rulemaking approach doesn’t work for this industry,” Pinkerton said.