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As we go to press, the U.S. government is conducting what has become a mainstay of political theater: the congressional hearing. This time, the impetus for the hearing is the incident that took place on a United Airlines flight last month, in which a passenger was forcibly — and violently — removed from an airplane. The encounter has created a firestorm in the media, and seemingly daily reports of other altercations on flights have followed.
At the hearing, United CEO Oscar Munoz took responsibility for the debacle
and provided several specific reasons for why it happened. However, one cause Munoz failed to mention — and it’s doubtful that any other airline executive will mention it, either — is a lack of free-market competition in the overall industry, which would put needed pressure on major airlines to pay more attention to customer service.
“We all should want U.S. airlines to be healthy and profitable, but for too long, they’ve dominated aviation policymaking at the expense of the traveling public,” said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president for public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association. “The moment to reverse that trend has clearly arrived.”
Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Agents, also sees these hearings as an opportunity to establish better airline policies.
“We are heartened that the Department of Transportation (DOT) is reviewing the particulars of the situation, and we believe that it should be a catalyst for both DOT and Congress to take the necessary steps to beef up passenger rights,” Kerby said. “Indeed, with the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill coming up for renewal, now is the time to act.”
Hopefully these hearings will help bring actual change that will reflect the lessons we learned from this terrible episode. However, nothing in the way the incident has been handled so far leads me to believe we can expect such a mature response.
In the meantime, we will continue to see story after story about bizarre encounters on airplanes, which just serves to make air travel seem unpleasant at the least and lawless at the worst — and that’s a situation that hurts us all.