The dragging of a battered, bloodied physician off a United Airlines flight “disturbed” the White House, provoked outrage from political leaders in both parties and turned one of the world’s biggest air carriers into a social media pariah as far away as China — while wiping out a quarter-billion dollars of the company’s market value Tuesday.
But don’t expect it to wreak much damage on the clout that United and other U.S. airlines wield in Washington, even as Sunday’s incident appeared to crystallize years of travelers’ discontent with cramped seats, luggage restrictions and bewildering fees.
The White House and the Department of Transportation have offered only muted reactions to Sunday’s incident, in contrast to the anger at United churning through Facebook, Twitter and several statements from Capitol Hill. United CEO Oscar Munoz and other airline executives have also literally had a seat at the table with President Donald Trump, who is considering whether to support one of the industry’s biggest lobbying goals — splitting up the Federal Aviation Administration and giving airlines a bigger say in air traffic control.
Trump — a former airline owner and former United shareholder — has most likely seen the video of Dr. David Dao being dragged from Sunday’s overbooked flight in Chicago, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Tuesday. But Spicer declined to offer a detailed reaction, saying that anyone would be “a little disturbed that another human being is treated that way.”
“This probably could have been handled a little bit better,” Spicer added.
DOT has said it is reviewing the incident and pointed to its protocols on how airlines should handle the involuntary bumping of passengers from overbooked flights.
Meanwhile, reaction from Congress began swelling Tuesday.
House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said he was “troubled” by the incident, adding that “this entire situation was poorly managed and avoidable” — but didn’t indicate that he would hold hearings or make any legislative response. Two members of Shuster’s panel, Reps. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), went further, with Davis saying Dao’s forceful removal “warrants further review by the administration and potentially Congress.”
Reps. Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Rick Larsen of Washington state, the top Democrats on the full committee and the aviation subcommittee, said in a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao that United’s handling of the incident was “outrageous” and “unacceptable.”
United had “a number of options to rectify its own scheduling error, while treating its customers with the respect they deserve,” DeFazio and Larsen wrote.
Twenty-one Democratic senators, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, demanded that Munoz answer a long series of questions about its bumping policies and how Sunday’s events unfolded, while both Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee directed questions about the incident to Chicago’s Department of Aviation. Meanwhile, Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie urged Chao to suspend the DOT regulation that allows airlines to remove passengers from overbooked flights, CBS New York reported.
And some Democrats, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, said the episode points to the need for new regulations protecting airline passengers — although history suggests that lawmakers won’t act quickly.
The United incident was “the latest example of a major U.S. airline disrespecting passengers and denying them their basic rights,” Blumenthal told Chao in a letter, adding that he’s working on a new “bill of rights” for air travelers. The last major package on passengers’ rights took about five years to enact after then-Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) first crafted it in 2007.
The Boxer-Snowe measure, a response to incidents involving planes left stranded on tarmacs with no food or water, established fines for airlines that keep passengers trapped for longer than three hours. But the FAA did not codify the meat of those protections until Congress folded the provisions into a broader aviation bill enacted in 2012.
Sunday’s events showed that passengers needed even more safeguards, one passenger advocate said. “There’s a long list of things that could be done and a long list of things that could have been done to prevent this sort of thing from happening,” said Paul Hudson of FlyersRights.org, a group founded in the mid-2000s after one nine-hour stranding incident.
Hudson said he has asked DOT to broker a meeting next week among passenger advocates, airlines and unions over passengers’ rights.
Even if Congress or regulators decide to get involved, the airline industry is a powerful lobby, representing flagship U.S. companies that count lawmakers among their most frequent flyers. In the 2016 election cycle, United’s PAC gave out almost $1.1 million in campaign contributions, split just about evenly among Democrats and Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That included $39,628 to Trump, as well as $137,435 to Hillary Clinton and $59,666 to Bernie Sanders.
Trump has had an even more direct relationship with United: For a brief period in the 1980s, he owned about one-fifth of the shares of the airline’s then-parent company, The New York Times and other outlets reported in 1987.
Major airlines have also had a long history of getting much of what they wanted from Washington, including the Obama administration’s 2010 approval of a merger between United and former rival Continental. The Obama administration also allowed American Airlines to merge with US Airways, despite consumer groups’ objections that consolidation of the industry would mean higher fares and less choice for passengers.
Now the industry is pursuing an even bigger prize: a proposal, championed by Shuster, that would break up the FAA and hand its air traffic control operations to a new, non-governmental body. The new entity’s board would include representatives from the airlines and their allied interests, which critics say would give them disproportionate sway over the system.
Trump hasn’t taken a public stand on the proposal but has repeated the industry’s complaints about the FAA’s handling of air traffic control, including at a Feb. 9 meeting he held in the White House with Munoz and other airline CEOs.
Transportation experts called Sunday’s incident a mainly self-inflicted wound by United — one that was costing it on Wall Street. The company’s value plunged by much as $978 million in a stock selloff early Tuesday, although by the end of the day it had rebounded to a roughly $252 million decline.
Dao “should obviously have been treated in a different way, but we don’t actually know what was said and done on the plane,” said Ken Button, director of the Center for Transportation Policy, Operations and Logistics at George Mason University. But for one thing, Button said, United should have sorted out its overbooking issue before letting Dao and other passengers board the Chicago-to-Louisville flight.
In his letter to Chao, Blumenthal called for DOT to examine airlines’ policies for handling overbooked flights, including whether passengers are receiving the maximum $1,350 compensation when they’re involuntarily bumped. He also asked whether airlines are giving priority to crew members over passengers in cases of overbooking.
Hudson, of FlyersRights.org, said airlines should reinstate the reciprocity rule — a practice, before the industry was deregulated in the 1970s, in which carriers would rebook passengers on a competitor at their own expense when they delayed or canceled flights.
“We think that would not only mitigate these situations, but it would also encourage better behavior and more on-time performance by airlines,” he said. “Right now, everything is dumped on the passenger.”
Munoz, meanwhile, issued a series of statements about the incident, some of which only seemed to stoke the outrage. He apologized in a statement Monday “for having to re-accommodate these customers,” but later sent a letter to employees praising the flight crew for their handling of a “disruptive and belligerent” passenger.
On Tuesday afternoon, the CEO tried again, issuing a statement taking “full responsibility” with his “deepest apologies” and adding that “no one should ever be treated this way.”
He also pledged a detailed review of the airline’s crew movement, incentive policies for voluntarily giving up a seat, and how the company handles overbooking and partners with local law enforcement.
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