Overbooking and Over the Top

For once, the perpetually-criticized denizens of Capitol Hill had a chance to say that something was broken besides Washington.

On Tuesday, the executives of four major airlines were hauled before the House Transportation Committee and grilled about treatment (or mistreatment) of the flying public following a recent overbooking incident in which a passenger who refused to give up his seat was violently removed from a United Airlines plane.

Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said that “there’s something clearly broken when passengers have been treated the way they have.” He warned the airlines to “seize the day” because if carriers do not reform their passenger policies, Congress will impose rules, and “you’re not going to like it.”

Contrition was the order of the day. United CEO Oscar Munoz was profusely apologetic, and rightfully called the incident “a mistake of epic proportions.”

“We called law enforcement when a safety or security issue did not exist,” he said. “We rebooked crew at the very last minute. We didn’t offer enough compensation or travel options to incentivize a passenger to give up a seat. And, most important, our employees did not have the authority to do what was right for our customers.”

United is by no means the only culprit. American Airlines, also represented at Tuesday’s hearing, had it’s own share of bad publicity last month when footage was publicized showing a woman on one of its planes in tears holding a child in her arms and another at her side after an argument with a flight attendant over a baby stroller.

The congressmen made it clear that apologetics alone will not suffice.

“There will come a day when Americans won’t accept your apology,” said Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.) during the hearing. “We have a problem. It shouldn’t be as bad as it is.”

United has already begun to make amends materially, promising to improve employee training and raising the $10,000 ceiling on compensation for those who relinquish seats on overbooked flights. The company has also made a quick and, presumably generous, out-of-court settlement with the ejected passenger, Kentucky physician David Dao.

But on the issue of overbooking itself, neither United nor any other airline is ready to call a halt. Not voluntarily, anyway.

On the contrary, despite saying sorry and promising to do better, the executives contended that the industry in general is providing good service and that the policy of overbooking is economically justified. They are losing fewer bags, have reduced delays and are offering cheaper fares, they said.

But if baggage handling has improved, passenger handling hasn’t. In fact, it’s been getting worse. In 2016, complaints rose by some 30 percent over the previous year, according to Department of Transportation figures. And those are just the complaints made to the government. Elected officials receive numerous complaints from constituents about the airlines high-handed behavior, bumping them, shrinking seats (and then charging more for “extra” legroom), and fees for every small convenience that used to be complementary.

The disconnect is industry-wide; the airlines think they’re doing a great job, just a few problems here and there, while the public feels cheated and abused. The grumbling can be heard all the way to Washington.

Now, as a result, the cherished right to overbook is at risk. One of the legislative proposals in the works would have the secretary of transportation review overbooking to determine what limits can be put on it.

However, the practice will almost certainly survive, though it might get trimmed back a little. As United’s president Scott Kirby told the committee, overbooking allows them to charge less by guaranteeing full cabins, and noted that the policy has helped to bring fares down 17 percent over the past 20 years. If legislation is passed restricting or banning overbooking, ticket prices will go up, and the interrogators at Tuesday’s hearing don’t want to be blamed for that.

Furthermore, the Dao case was a rare exception to the rule. The carriers can almost always find passengers willing to give up their seat for a price.

The real scandal was the way United personnel enforced its right to overbook, and the over-the-top behavior of airlines in general.

Still, it must be said that the congressman were a bit over-the-top as well in their questioning. Like Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-California), who, in the midst of a diatribe on the semi-monopoly that the airlines hold in many places (such as his hometown, San Diego, where United is almost all there is), he asked: “How much do you hate the American people?”

The allure of populism is bipartisan, of course. “We’re all sick of it,” said Rep. Michael Capuano, a Democrat from Massachusetts. Air travelers have come to have “lowered expectations,” he said, adding that “we all know it is a horrible experience.”

Fortunately, the congressmen didn’t lose their perspective entirely. As Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.), quipped: “You know you’re having a bad day when the group that lectures you on customer service is Congress.”

Yet even if overbooking survives the current crisis intact, the insensitivity and niggling attitude that is so prevalent in the airline industry should not.

We don’t begrudge the airlines a reasonable profit; we want them to be successful; it contributes to the economy and the prosperity of all. It just shouldn’t be at the expense of the dignity and comfort of the passengers.