With his tail tucked firmly between his legs, United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz said all the right things during a high-pressure appearance before the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday.
“On April 9th, we had a serious breach of public trust,” he told lawmakers, channeling a convincing mixture of submissiveness and outrage. “For our customers and our company, we failed.”
But in the end, despite numerous apologies and promises of change at his scandal-plagued airline, the United CEO’s atoning only delayed the inevitable: Munoz was about to get a serious pummeling.
Though it wouldn’t compare to the actual treatment endured by David Dao — a 69-year-old passenger dragged off a United flight last month beaten and bloodied — the brutal lashing Munoz received would be no less public or humiliating.
Congressional panelists grilled Munoz and other airline executives about unpopular policies that have infuriated customers and spawned viral videos, such as overbooked flights, hidden charges and absurdly confusing contracts. The result, according to Rep. Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.), is “lowered expectations” that lead many to believe that flying is “a horrible experience.”
United and other airlines have been locked in PR nightmares the past few weeks. In the past month, Dao was forcibly removed from his United flight, sparking widespread outrage. Days later, a male flight attendant on an American Airlines flight got into a heated confrontation with a female passenger over an extra-wide stroller, unleashing even more outrage. As if those incidents were not damaging enough, the owner of a giant rabbit named Simon accused United of cremating her bunny to “cover up” the animal’s unexpected death.
“We’re all sick of it,” Capuano added.
By the end of the four-hour hearing — which also included statements from executives at American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines — Capuano’s surprisingly candid language was among the tamest blows that airline executives absorbed. The lawmakers’ collective message: Fix your airlines, or expect to hear back from us.
Compiled below are a few of the strongest words that lawmakers hurled at Munoz and his fellow executives.
Capuano: “There will come a day when Americans won’t accept your apology. We have a problem. It shouldn’t be as bad as it is,” the Democrat said.
Flying, Capuano added, “should not be as bad or unpleasant as it is, and you are the only people who can fix it. Nobody is against you making money. I don’t want to yell at you. I just want to get from Point A to Point B.”
Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.): “Something is broken” when passengers are subjected to the kind of treatment that has been widely publicized, he said. He warned airlines to “seize the day.”
“If we don’t see meaningful results that improve customer service, the next time this committee meets to address the issue, I assure you, you won’t like the outcome,” Shuster said.
Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.): “How much do you hate the American people?”
Peter A. DeFazio (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the committee: “Very few passengers have any idea what their rights are,” he said, noting that 40,000 ticketed passengers were bumped from their flights last year.
“Seize this opportunity, because if you don’t, we’re going to come, and you won’t like it,” he warned.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.): “Unless we figure out a way to guarantee that customers are coming first, you’re going to see more of that,” she said. “What kind of assurances can we have that there shouldn’t be legislation in place?”
“You’re not just in the transportation business, you’re in the customer service business,” she added.
Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.):“You made your problem the customer’s problem,” Larsen said to Munoz.
Ashley Halsey III contributed to this report.