With top airline executives testifying before Congress earlier this week, people are wondering what’s next? Will the airlines improve the way they treat customers or force Congress to do it for them?
It’s been a whirlwind of eye-popping incidents onboard airplanes recently. The most recent period of uproar got going when police dragged a United Airlines passenger off a flight. It appears the passenger refused to get off the plane when United needed his seat for a crew member. It’s still unclear whether United had the authority to remove him, but some ugly video went viral and their CEO has been apologizing ever since.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, an American Airlines employee grabbed headlines when he yanked a stroller out of a mother’s hands, almost hitting her child. I’d like to say these are random acts, but they keep happening. At some point, they start to become the norm.
Congress decided that they needed to weigh in, so they “invited” a number of airline executives to testify in front of the House Transportation Committee. BBC World News asked me to come on the air briefly to summarize what was happening. While the end of the clip is cut off, you can get the gist from the video below:
Will Congress Step In?
The men and women that make up the US congress are heavy travelers. Few members of congress actually live in the DC area, whereas many of them travel to and from their home district weekly. This means they get a heavy dose of what the airlines have to offer. I suspect a good number of them qualify for upgrades on special government fares. But, they all deal with grumpy airline staff and crowded planes, just like you and I.
Even though members of congress want better flying conditions, I doubt they enact new legislation. For starters, doing so would be incredibly complicated. As mentioned by one of the ranking members, congress would institute a one-size-fits-all policy, unlikely to fit many at all.
It’s important to remember that most of the things affected by such a policy would likely lead to an increase in ticket prices. The airlines are public companies and they’re not likely to give up profit to make us feel better. Overbooking flights helps them offer more affordable products to fliers. More seats on planes do the same. We might not like either of these practices, but they do help keep our ticket price low.
It’s also important to recognize that recent incidents really are the exception and not the rule. The dragging incident on United 3411 was gruesome to watch, for sure. But, pulling passengers off of planes after they’ve boarded is exceedingly rare. Which means getting rid of overbooking doesn’t really solve the issue.
What’s The Solution?
Airlines need to train their front-line employees to be better at dispute resolution. Customers are cranky. They get crammed onto planes and feel they are treated poorly. In many cases, they’re right. Legacy carriers like United, Delta and American have plenty of employees who choose to pick a fight instead of resolving an issue. Southwest and JetBlue seem to do a much better job at treating customers well. Southwest in particular has plenty of 737s flying around full to the brim just like the legacy carriers. And yet, I don’t hear nearly as many horror stories there. Sure, they do have their issues. But, they don’t seem to have the same number of shocking stories about poor customer service.
In many cases today, the default position of the airlines seems to be getting customers to comply. I hear stories every day about someone who’s behavior wasn’t quite up to snuff getting thrown off a flight. Being in a bad mood isn’t grounds for being thrown off a flight on its own. The worst offenders absolutely do need to be removed. But, the airlines need to spend more time focusing on diffusing the situation instead of threatening removal.
A more humane approach is achievable and advisable. Nobody wants congress to weigh in here.
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