WASHINGTON — Frustrated Republicans and Democrats on Tuesday warned top airline executives to improve customer services or face congressional intervention after a passenger was dragged from a United Airlines flight in an incident the company's chief executive called a "mistake of epic proportions."
House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said carriers should use the notoriety of last month's forcible removal of a passenger to make long-needed improvements. If the airlines don't make changes, Congress is likely to step in, Shuster and other lawmakers said.
"Seize this opportunity," Shuster told United CEO Oscar Munoz and other airline executives at a hearing.
Otherwise, "we're going to act and you're not going to like it," he said, predicting a "one-size-fits-all" solution that may serve some airlines but not all.
Shuster provided no specifics on what steps Congress would take. Several members of Congress have introduced legislation to ban the bumping of passengers if flights are overbooked.
Munoz apologized repeatedly for the April 9 incident in which passenger David Dao was forcibly removed from a flight, causing a concussion, broken nose and other injuries. Munoz vowed to do better as he and other airline executives faced tough questions from lawmakers.
"It was a mistake of epic proportions, clearly, in hindsight," Munoz told a congressional hearing. He said Dao, a Kentucky physician, was treated in a way that no customer - or individual - should be treated, calling it a "terrible experience" that should never be repeated.
United has taken a series of steps to reduce overbooking of flights since the incident and will raise to $10,000 the limit on payments to customers who give up seats on oversold flights, Munoz said. The airline also said it will improve employee training.
"This is a turning point for United, and our 87,000 professionals," a contrite Munoz said. "It is my mission to ensure we make the changes needed to provide our customers with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of respect."
The hearing by the House Transportation Committee comes amid worldwide outrage sparked when Dao was dragged off the flight after refusing to give up his seat to a crew member. The incident ignited a debate about poor service and a lack of customer-friendly policies on U.S. airlines.
Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., said United put its own needs ahead of customers as it forced Dao off the flight to accommodate a crew member who wanted to take the flight to work another flight the next day.
"You made your problem the customer's problem," Larsen said.
Munoz told Larsen he "couldn't agree more" and said United has changed its policies so passengers will never be removed from a flight once they are seated unless there is a security or safety issue
United moved to head off criticism last week by reaching a settlement with Dao and issuing new policies designed to prevent customer-service failures. United and lawyers for Dao have declined to disclose financial terms of the settlement.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., called the changes announced by United a good start, but said, "It's got to be more than press releases. It's got to be changes in policies and practices."
United President Scott Kirby joined Munoz at the hearing, along with top executives of American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines.
Dao's attorney has praised the airline and Munoz for accepting responsibility and not blaming others, including the city of Chicago, whose airport security officers yanked Dao from his seat and dragged him off the United Express plane.
Dao was waiting to fly to Louisville, Kentucky, on April 9 when the airline decided it needed four seats for Republic Airline crew members who needed to travel to work on another United Express flight in Louisville the next morning. When Dao and his wife were selected for bumping, he refused to leave.
Video of the incident has sparked more than two weeks of withering criticism and mockery of United. Munoz initially blamed Dao, but later said he was horrified by the event and called it a failure on United's part.
United has vowed to reduce - but not eliminate - overbooking, which occurs when more tickets are sold than there are seats on the plane.