Senators Ask United: Was There Intelligent Alternative to Dragging Passenger?

By:  Joel Connelly
Source: The Seattle Pi

Was there an intelligent alternative to dragging a bloodied passenger off an airplane, and why didn't United Airlines find it, bipartisan leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee are demanding to know.

The leaders, including Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., have penned tough letters to United CEO Oscar Munoz and Chicago's Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans, whose cops dragged passenger Dr. David Dao from his seat and down the aisle of Louisville-bound Flight 3411.

The incident has galvanized public anger at airlines' lousy service, lack of passenger rights and the authoritarian behavior of America's air carriers.

"To date, United Airlines' explanation of the incident has been unsatisfactory and appears to underestimate the public anger about this incident," said the letter.

Members of Congress are in a position to observe the problem, but limited by politics in their response.

Cantwell has to fly across the country a majority of weekends and has experienced many through-the-night "red-eye" flights.  The committee's chairman, Sen. John Thune, has a long commute home to South Dakota.

On the other side of the U.S. Capitol, senior House Transportation Committee members Reps. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., face cross-country commutes followed by ground travel to their districts.

Still, the aviation lobby is a source of campaign contributions that makes politicians salivate.  It has a largely successful record of beating back passenger-rights legislation.  And, post 9/11, it can justify heavy-handed behavior on grounds of security.

The Senate letter does, however, beg the question:  Could United have avoided this mess with better policies and better-trained personnel?

"What specific incentives were offered for voluntary rebooking?" it asks Munoz. Could the four United employees, who bumped paying passengers, have found a flight to Louisville from nearby Midway Airport, or could United have arranged a charter?

"The last thing a paying airline passenger should expect is a physical altercation with law enforcement personnel after boarding, especially one that could have been avoided," the letter argues.

Evans has put two officers on leave pending investigation.  The senators, however, want to know which policies flow from the top.

"What are the policies and procedures for your security and law enforcement personnel regarding this type of situation and did all your employees adhere to them in this case?" the Senate letter asks.

"What explanation did airline personnel provide to your security and law enforcement personnel regarding the request to remove the passenger?"

Overall, the letter argued, overbooking of flights is "too common of a practice among commercial carriers like United Airlines.

"While overbooking is not illegal, we are deeply disturbed by the actions taken aboard Flight 3411 to deal with the situation," it added.

Munoz, after a fumbling initial response -- he talked about "re-accommodating" passengers -- did a full mea culpa on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Wednesday morning.  He felt "shame" watching video of the episode, said Munoz.

He, and Ginger Evans, will now have to provide some answers.  The Senate committee wants its questions answered by Thursday of next week.