Saturday, January 20, 2018
Business

Senate bill would expand protections for air travelers, require study of airline overbooking

WASHINGTON - Legislation set to be introduced in the Senate on Wednesday would bar airlines from involuntarily removing passengers once they've boarded a flight and eliminate the caps on the compensation they can receive if they are bumped.

The goal the bill's sponsors, Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, say, is to prevent a repeat of an incident at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in which a Kentucky man was forcibly removed from his flight when he refused to give up his seat to accommodate airline crew members.

The Transparency, Improvements, and Compensation to Keep Every Ticketholder Safe (TICKETS) Act also calls for the secretary of transportation to review ticket over-selling practices and consider whether limits should be placed on the number of tickets an airline can sell for a flight.

"The horrifying incident on United Flight 3411 made clear that we need stronger consumer protections for the flying public," Hassan said. "This common-sense legislation will help prevent incidents like that from happening again and help ensure that travelers are treated with greater fairness and respect by the airlines industry. I look forward to working across the aisle to improve traveling conditions for the public."

Added Schatz: "It should go without saying that unless there is a security threat or a safety risk, paying customers should not be forcibly removed from an airplane. But given what happened earlier this month, we need to take action. Our bill will make sure that no matter who you are, passengers are treated with basic respect and dignity."

Airlines, however, would still have the right to remove passengers from a flight if they present a security or health risk.

On Tuesday, Illinois Reps. Jan Schakowsky, D, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D, introduced a bill that contains some of the same elements of the Hassan-Schatz measure. It too, would bar airlines from forcing passengers who have already checked-in and boarded their flight from being involuntarily removed.

The Senate bill would require airlines to be more upfront about their policies for handling situations in which a flight is overbooked. Such policies would have to be noted on a passenger's flight itinerary and receipt. The legislation also would require airlines to post their policies publicly at each gate.

The measure also addresses the question of how airlines handle seating when they need to accommodate crew members. Under the bill, airline crew who need seats on flights would have to check in 60 minutes prior to departure. United already has changed its policies to require crew members to check in an hour before departure.

The bill already has won the endorsement of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

"The legislation introduced by Senators Hassan and Schatz is a timely and overdue step to reassert the rights and importance of the American consumer in the marketplace and in our democracy," said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for the nonprofit group.

The measure is co-sponsored by Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Catherine Cortez-Masto, D-Nev., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Under current DOT rules, airlines must first ask for volunteers when there are not enough seats on a flight. If travelers are involuntarily bumped they are, with some exceptions, entitled to compensation. It is up to the airlines, however, to determine the amount and form of that compensation. The amount a passenger can receive is capped at $1,350 under DOT's rules. The TICKETS Act would remove that limit.

Hassan and Schatz were among a group of lawmakers who demanded answers from United following the April 9, incident. The airline has not responded.

United CEO Oscar Munoz has promised that the results of an investigation into the matter will be released by the end of the month.

The House is expected to hold hearings into the incident.

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