March 03, 2020

Chairs DeFazio, Larsen Statements from Hearing on Airline Passenger Experience

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation Rick Larsen (D-WA) 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.

Chair Larsen:

Good morning and thank you to today’s witnesses for joining the Subcommittee’s discussion on the air travel experience.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2018, U.S. airlines carried 925.5 million passengers to destinations in the U.S. and abroad, the highest total since 2003.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) current aerospace forecast predicts passenger traffic will increase roughly two percent per year over the next 20 years.

In the Puget Sound region, the number of passenger enplanements is expected to grow from 24 million in 2018 up to 55.6 million by 2050.

While increased passenger demand creates new economic opportunities and enhances the nation’s aviation network, longstanding challenges can hinder growth.

Over the last few years, U.S. airlines have invested in their products, including IT solutions, such as smartphone apps, to de-stress the travel experience.

Today’s hearing is an opportunity for this Subcommittee to examine the U.S. airline passenger experience, hear from stakeholders on ways to improve this experience and consider how Congress and the airline industry can foster innovation to benefit the flying public.

Today’s witnesses represent a broad range of stakeholders with unique insights on the passenger experience, from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to airlines and industry to consumer advocates. 

While the Subcommittee will discuss numerous aspects of the everyday travel experience on U.S. airlines, there are a few at the top of my mind today.

According to the latest U.S. Census estimates, 57 million Americans have a disability, and more than half of those have mobility issues.

Last November, this Subcommittee held a roundtable to better understand this community’s air travel experience, including challenges with boarding the aircraft, inaccessible lavatories, inappropriate screening techniques and damaged wheelchairs and mobility aids.

As mandated by 2016 and 2018 FAA reauthorization acts, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) initiated several rulemakings to improve the accessibility of aircraft lavatories and regulate emotional support and service animals.

Mr. Lee Page joins us on behalf of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. Mr. Page, I look forward to hearing more about these rules and how Congress can work with industry and stakeholders to help fill in the gaps on airplane and airport accessibility.

Throughout this country’s history, discrimination has been a pervasive and persistent issue.

Far too often, viral videos, reports or personal anecdotes uncover unlawful practices across the transportation sector on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, religion and disability.

According to the GAO, passenger discrimination complaints submitted to DOT went up from an average of 80 per year over the past decade, to 96 complaints in 2019. Most complaints were related to racial discrimination.

Sadly, this startling statistic does not reflect the numerous other cases DOT’s reporting system has not captured.

One of my priorities in Congress is to break down barriers for all people to fully participate in the economy.

The 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act directed the GAO to assess airlines’ non-discrimination training programs for employees and contractors.

Mr. Von Ah joins the panel from the GAO and will provide an update on the agency’s work on this study.

In addition, Mr. Klein, with Spirit Airlines, I look forward to hearing more about industry’s efforts to reduce discrimination.

At the beginning of the 116th Congress, I set a forward-looking agenda which prioritizes enhancing the air travel experience for U.S. passengers.

To do so, Congress, the DOT and industry must work to ensure transparency, prevent unfair and inequitable practices and promote reliable and accessible air service for all Americans.

The latest FAA Reauthorization Act includes numerous provisions to enhance the experience of airline passengers, including establishing minimum seat pitch dimensions in commercial aircraft, establishing a DOT aviation consumer advocate to help resolve air travel complaints and requiring carriers to improve transparency with the accommodations they provide passengers caught up in widespread flight disruptions, among many others.

I look forward to hearing today’s testimony from Mr. McGee on how the recent law will improve the passenger experience, as well as from Dr. Leader from the Airline Passenger Experience Association on industry’s voluntary efforts to invest in new technologies, equipment and general practices to better serve consumers.

I am pleased to convene the first hearing on consumer protections in nearly three years to explore the important issues facing air travelers today.

Over the past several years, the federal government and carriers have made some progress in improving the passenger experience, but there is much more work ahead.

My thanks again to today’s witnesses. I look forward to identifying ways Congress can ensure all passengers have a safe, comfortable and dignified travel experience.

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