Airlines warned of intervention by Washington after passenger dragged from plane
Top US airline executives have been warned by Washington they must improve customer services or face congressional intervention after a passenger was dragged from a United Airlines flight in an incident the company's chief executive called a "mistake of epic proportions".
On Capitol Hill, House transportation committee chairman Bill Shuster said carriers should use the notoriety of last month's forcible removal of a passenger to make much-needed improvements.
If the airlines do not make changes, Congress is likely to step in, Mr Shuster and other senior politicians said.
"Seize this opportunity," Mr Shuster told United chief executive Oscar Munoz and other airline executives at the hearing.
Otherwise, he said, "we're going to act and you're not going to like it".
Mr Shuster provided no specifics on what steps Congress would take. Several members of Congress have introduced legislation to ban the bumping of passengers if flights are overbooked.
Mr Munoz apologised repeatedly for the April 9 incident in which passenger David Dao was forcibly removed from a flight, causing a concussion, broken nose and other injuries.
Mr Munoz vowed to do better as he and other airline executives faced tough questions from legislators.
"It was a mistake of epic proportions, clearly, in hindsight," Mr Munoz told the congressional hearing.
He said Mr Dao, a doctor, was treated in a way that no customer - or individual - should be treated, calling it a "terrible experience" that should never be repeated.
United has taken a series of steps to reduce overbooking of flights since the incident and will raise to 10,000 US dollars (£7,740) the limit on payments to customers who give up seats on oversold flights, Mr Munoz said. The airline also said it will improve employee training.
"This is a turning point for United, and our 87,000 professionals," a contrite Mr Munoz said. "It is my mission to ensure we make the changes needed to provide our customers with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of respect."
The hearing by the House committee came amid worldwide outrage sparked when Mr Dao was dragged off the flight after refusing to give up his seat to a crew member. The incident ignited a debate about poor service and a lack of customer-friendly policies on US airlines.
Committee member Rick Larsen said United put its own needs ahead of customers as it forced Mr Dao off the plane to accommodate a crew member who wanted to take the flight to work for another flight the next day.
"You made your problem the customer's problem," Mr Larsen said.
Mr Munoz told Mr Larsen he "couldn't agree more" and said United has changed its policies so passengers will never be removed from a flight once they are seated unless there is a security or safety issue.
United moved to head off criticism last week by reaching a settlement with Mr Dao and issuing new policies designed to prevent customer service failures.
United president Scott Kirby joined Mr Munoz at the hearing, along with top executives of American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines.