Members Of Congress Are Annoyed By Air Travel, Too
When some members of Congress look at the practices of U.S. airlines, they aren't just lawmakers eyeing an industry.
They're customers. And they aren't happy.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing on Tuesday to address concerns over airline customer service. It was prompted by several high-profile incidents, including the violent removal of a passenger on a United Express flight.
But the hearing with executives from four major carriers was wide-ranging. And it was quickly apparent that members of Congress — traveling back and forth between Washington, D.C., and their home districts — are frequent fliers, with very personal feelings on the subject.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., whose home district is in San Diego, said he'd considered, and rejected, two opening questions: "Why do you hate the American people?" and "How much do you hate the American people?"
Committee members complained about seat sizes, about checked-bag fees, about ticket-booking websites, about overbooking and bumping, and rude gate attendants.
"Every time you want to do something, you gotta pay extra," said Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J. "If you want a window, an aisle, you're going to pay extra. If you want a little extra seat in the front, you pay extra. Pretty soon you're going to charge to use the restrooms."
"Sir, we're never going to do that," United Airlines President Scott Kirby said.
Rep. Jason Lewis, R-Minn., said he didn't want to tell the executives how to run their businesses. "I do want to come to you, though, as a consumer," he said — "a consumer who just spent, two weekends ago, 30 hours getting from Washington, D.C., to Minneapolis, Minn."
He said he was stranded at Reagan National airport for a day and a half.
Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen spoke directly to Kerry Philipovitch, a senior vice president from American Airlines, about a recent flight he took on the airline's partner Air Wisconsin.
He called the airline's planes "buses with propellers" with "teeny, tiny awful seats."
"I apologize that you had an uncomfortable flight," Philipovitch said.
And Michael Capuano, D-Mass., delivered what can only be described as a rant:
"I apologize for not having a question," he told the committee chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa.
"My only response to that is 'Well said, thank you,' " Shuster said.
A few committee members piped up to defend the companies, but the vast majority were critical and clearly frustrated.
At multiple points during the hearing, representatives pointed to Southwest — with its free checked bags, no change fees and recently announced decision not to intentionally overbook flights — and asked why the other airlines couldn't be more like them.
"Southwest, are you going to go broke or something?" asked ranking member Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.
Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, turned to the president of United.
"Mr. Kirby, you said you overbooked to keep fares low," he said. "I can't remember the last time the United fare was lower than the Southwest fare. Southwest, how do you do it?"
Several of the members of Congress — including Republicans — raised the specter of at least partial re-regulation of the airlines, which have not had federal oversight of fares or routes in decades.
"I'm a conservative Republican," Texas Rep. Brian Babin said in remarks echoed by multiple colleagues. "I don't like regulation if we can get away with it.
"But something has got to be done in terms of customer service with some of your airlines," he said.
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