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Congress Warns Airlines: Do Better, or Else

In his opening remarks before yesterday’s House Transportation Committee “Oversight of U.S. Airline Customer Service” hearing, committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) referred to two recent incidents: United’s forcible removal of a passenger on flight UA3411, and an American Airlines flight attendant’s tussle with a passenger over her child’s stroller.

While those high-profile events may have triggered the hearing, remarks from the lawmakers made it clear that they viewed the airlines’ failings as far deeper and more pervasive. As Shuster put it, “Something is broken, and the obvious divide between passengers and the airlines needs to be addressed.”

Over a grueling four-plus hours, committee members subjected top airline executives from United, American, Alaska, and Southwest to a withering critique of current airline-industry practices, including overbooking, fees for bags and changes, and contracts of carriage that put the airlines’ rights ahead of their customers’. (Delta decline to attend the hearing, claiming it was working directly with individual members of Congress to address customer issues.)

The airlines were predictably remorseful. And just as predictably, they promised to perform better in the future, United for its part pointing to its recent pledge to make 10 “substantial changes to how it flies, serves and respects its customers.”

As have the travelers they represent, lawmakers have heard the airlines’ apologies and plans to improve the customer experience before, with no appreciable change for the better. Their frustration was evident.

Shuster left the airlines with a message that left no doubt as to the seriousness of the situation: “Seize this opportunity, because if you don’t, we’re going to come and you’re not going to like it.”

For all the tough talk, travelers have every reason to be skeptical of lawmakers’ ability to make the skies friendlier.

The airlines and their lobbyists have stymied government efforts to impose consumer-friendly protections in the past, and are well positioned to continue doing so.

And if there were ever a time when more regulation of the airlines was especially unlikely, it’s now, with an administration that is dead-set against government meddling into the business of business.

Flyers can watch and hope as the lawmakers bemoan the sorry state of the industry. But they should be prepared for more of the same.

Reader Reality Check

What are the odds that Congress will force meaningful change in the airline industry?

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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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