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Chair DeFazio Statement from Hearing on Airline Passenger Experience

Mar 3, 2020
Press Release

The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) during today’s hearing titled: “The Airline Passenger Experience: What It Is and What It Could Be.”

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Chair Larsen, for calling today’s hearing on the airline passenger experience—and what it can and should be.

I want to start by saying that I am monitoring the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19)—and the aviation sector’s role in mitigating the disease’s spread into the United States. Last week, Chair Larsen and I sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Chao urging her to implement a five-year-old Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommendation in response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak that the Department of Transportation (DOT) work with relevant agencies and stakeholders to develop a national aviation preparedness plan for communicable disease outbreaks.

This recommendation has not been implemented and had it been so, the U.S. Government may be in a better position today to coordinate and collaborate with industry in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. This Committee will continue to track this pandemic and its effects on public health and our civil aviation industry. We will take actions as appropriate and necessary.

We are here today, however, to discuss the state of air travel in the United States. The last opportunity we had to do so in a hearing setting came in 2017 after a series of errors by the biggest U.S. airlines—a year or more of air travel plagued by major computer meltdowns stranding millions of passengers across the country and some serious altercations and exchanges with passengers during travel, to name a couple.

We should not wait until the water main breaks before conducting important, and necessary, oversight of the airline passenger experience, and so I’m pleased we are here today. 

During my first term in Congress, as a Member of this Committee’s predecessor, the Public Works and Transportation Committee, I introduced the Airline Passenger Equity Act of 1987 to keep commercial airlines accountable to their passengers. Some of these provisions were included in the Airline Passenger Protection Act of 1987, but some 30 years and several passenger protection bills later, it appears there is more work to do.

U.S. airlines have soared to record profitability in recent years—with a combined after-tax profit of $11.8 billion in 2018 and another $11.8 billion in the first three quarters of 2019. Recent profitability is, in part, due to ancillary fees, adding to the cost of air travel for many passengers today. In 2018 alone, U.S. airlines’ fees for checked bags and reservation changes alone totaled $7.6 billion. And these fees continue to rise.

Incidentally, several major U.S. airlines—JetBlue, American, United, and Delta—increased their checked bag fees by $5, within a 30-day span in 2018. These increases, one after the other, all occurred as Congress was negotiating the FAA reauthorization bill.

And just a week ago, United announced it will again up its checked bag fee by $5, unless the passenger pre-pays for the bag before online check-in. If past behavior is indicative of what is to come, United’s competitors will soon follow suit and raise their bag fees as well.

It strikes me as odd that as carriers continue to increase their bag fees, passenger demand continues to grow. Yet airlines change their views on the law of supply and demand when it comes to increasing the passenger facility charge (PFC)—the most effective funding tool our nation’s airports have to build and maintain their infrastructure. They argue that even a dollar increase would cause demand to plummet.

If we seriously want to talk about improving the passenger experience in air travel, we could do a lot on the ground by increasing the PFC, which has been totally stagnant for two decades. Until then, terminals will remain clogged with passengers; runways and taxiways will be in need of additions and rehabilitation; airplanes will sit on the tarmac waiting for gates; and we’ll miss opportunities to create good-paying jobs across the country.

As the airlines continue to squeeze extra money from passengers, what are passengers left with?

Packed planes. Aircraft load factors are approaching a 15-year high (more than 84.5 percent full on average last year).

Mishandled bags. Nearly 3 million mishandled bag reports were filed with reporting U.S. carriers last year.

Inflexibility. U.S. carriers made $2.7 billion on reservation changes and cancellations alone in 2018. I’ve seen these fees as high as $200 each way, plus the difference in cost for the new flight; and if flying internationally, a passenger needing to switch dates might pay $750 or more.

Sometimes little or no reasonable recourse. Most of a passenger’s right are buried in U.S. airlines’ contracts of carriage. These treatises—40 pages on average—“require a reading level of someone with a college graduate degree,” according to the GAO.

The traveling experience is even more burdensome for passengers with disabilities or reduced mobility. There are many issues to discuss on this matter, but one that jumps to the front is airlines’ poor handling of mobility aids.

An investigative article published last year in the Eugene Register-Guard, a newspaper in my district in Oregon, detailed alarming instances of airlines failing to respond meaningfully to complaints of wheelchair mishandling and refusing to repair or replace damaged wheelchairs.

According to DOT data—which the public has just started to see only after Congress imposed a mandate in the 2018 FAA reauthorization act—reporting U.S. airlines collectively mishandled 10,548 wheelchairs and scooters in 2019. In other words, the airlines mishandled nearly 900 mobility aids per month.

The airlines may argue that considered relative to the total number of aids that the carriers transported, they mishandled only a couple of percent. However, the real number is likely much larger since a lot of these incidents are never reported. And I believe even one mishandled wheelchair is one too many, as these aids are extensions of people’s bodies. We must ensure these passengers have a dignified traveling experience, from arrival at the airport to their destination.

We must also ensure the airline cabin is a safe and hospitable environment for all.

Recent press stories describe passengers bringing animals, purported to be “emotional support animals,” on board aircraft and those animals biting flight crew and showing aggression to passengers and other service animals. With the introduction of “comfort” turkeys, possums, snakes, and peacocks, the airport terminal and aircraft cabin have become a zoo.

I was encouraged the DOT proposed a rule earlier this year to start the discussion on how to address the abuse of emotional support animal policies. It is my hope this process will result in reasonable approaches that appropriately protect passengers with support needs from discrimination while also ensuring the comfort of other passengers.

Finally, I would like to discuss briefly my concerns regarding the safety of passengers in the event of a cabin evacuation.

In 1985, before I was elected to Congress, 55 people died during the botched evacuation of British Airtours flight 28M in Manchester. After I was elected, I persisted in response to that tragedy until the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finally adopted spacing requirements for exit-row seats in 1992.

But evacuations continue to be a problem. After a Boeing 767 became engulfed in flames following an uncontained engine failure during its takeoff roll in Chicago in 2016, the scene in the cabin was a complete melee as passengers tried to evacuate the burning plane dragging huge carry-on bags with them. To quote from the National Transportation Safety Board’s report:

“In one case, a flight attendant tried to take a bag away from a passenger who did not follow the instruction to evacuate without baggage, but the flight attendant realized that the struggle over the bag was prolonging the evacuation and allowed the passenger to take the bag.”

The FAA says it should take 90 seconds to evacuate a burning plane. It took 161 passengers and eight crew two minutes and 21 seconds to evacuate the 767 at O’Hare. So that to me begs the question: Are the FAA’s assumptions valid about how long it takes for cabin evacuations?

At my insistence, the 2018 law requires the FAA Administrator to reassess the assumptions and methods behind certification of evacuation times and report to Congress on the matter. I will be checking in with FAA Administrator Dickson on the agency’s status in meeting this important safety-critical mandate.

With that, Chair Larsen, I again thank you for holding today’s hearing.

Chair DeFazio’s remarks as delivered can be found here.

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