Only 1 Airline Bothers To Show Up To NJ Hearing On Passenger Rights
TRENTON — In the wake of last month’s shocking United airlines incident in which a screaming passenger was forcibly removed from a jet when he refused to voluntarily give up his seat, the Division of Consumer Affairs held an airline passengers rights hearing in Trenton on Thursday.
Only one airline participated.
During the session, Monica Stokes, the managing director of corporate and government affairs for United, repeatedly apologized for dragging David Dao off the plane April 9 — an incident that was caught on tape and spurred criticism of the airline industry's practices of overbooking flights and bumping customers.
She told members of the panel the airline had done several things wrong.
“We called on law enforcement when a safety and security issue didn’t exist; we rebooked crew at the very last minute; we did not offer enough compensation or travel options to incentivize a passenger to give up a seat; and our employees did not have the authority to do what was right for our customers. A series of policies put our employees in an impossible situation,” she said.
“Safety is the priority and rules are critical, but in this instance where safety wasn’t the issue. We let rules and operating procedures stand in the way of common sense.”
Stokes stressed several changes are being made to make sure this kind of thing never happens again.
“Unless safety and security is an issue, we will never again ask a customer to give up their seat once they’re onboard, or ask law enforcement to remove a customer from a flight, and we will reduce overbooking. If faced with an overbooked situation, we will identify volunteers earlier and offer incentives up to $10,000,” she said.
She also said if a customer chooses to give up their seat, a special team will be dedicated to finding them alternative travel options. And when a United crew needs to travel on a flight, “We will ensure they are booked at least an hour before departure.”
She added the airline has also instituted a no-questions-asked $1,500 policy for lost luggage.
According to Stokes, these steps are especially important for the people of New Jersey.
She said United, as a company that employs 14,000 people at their hub in Newark, has invested more than $2 billion to improve the customer experience at Newark airport.
“We are proud to be a community partner to a number of organizations here in the state, from the Newark Museum and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, to the Food Bank of South Jersey, we have deep roots here,” she said.
“And we are deeply committed to the people of New Jersey, know that we will work incredibly hard to re-earn your trust and to provide our customers with the respect and service that they all deserve.”
United customer service manager Nathan Lopp said the airline is “moving towards a customer-centric airline, and we are making sure that we are moving towards a better customer service.”
“United is going to enhance that customer experience and ensure that things like this never happen again.”
When the United reps were asked if there should be a passenger bill of rights for people who agree to give up their seat for money and a hotel, Stokes replied “that’s been discussed, we will have to get back to you on where those discussions are at this point.”
When Lopp was asked if United would consider ending it’s overbooking policy, he said, "We believe that overbooking helps to keep airfares low, it also helps us allow for more thousands of passengers to buy tickets.”
Several airlines besides United were invited to attend the hearing and offer testimony, but they declined to appear.
After the hearing was concluded, Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, D-Gloucester, the chairman of the Consumer Affairs committee issued the following statement:
“Recent mistreatment of travelers – from the horrific violent removal of a man from a United flight in Chicago to the humiliation of a man who was kicked off a Delta flight in Atlanta because he had to use the restroom – reflects a larger culture of disregard for the rights of airline passengers.
“Along with smaller seats, reduced legroom, the crowding of as many people as possible into an aircraft and checked baggage fees that result in passengers carrying on board as much luggage as they can, these incidents have fomented anxiety for travelers and airline employees alike.
“While I appreciate the attendance and cooperation of United representatives, the refusal of American, Delta, Jet Blue and Southwest to appear before the committee suggests a lack of interest in changing this culture any time soon. As such, our representatives in Congress and members of the board of commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Newark Liberty International Airport, must step up and hold airlines accountable.
“Airlines may be regulated by Washington, but airports are local. At the very least, all who board a plane in the state of New Jersey should fly with the confidence that they will be respected. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the legislature, members of Congress and members of the Port Authority board to push for industry-wide pro-passenger policies.”