(Reuters) — U.S. airline passenger complaints leapt 70 percent in April from a year earlier after a series of high-profile incidents including a passenger being dragged off a United Airlines flight, the government said on Wednesday.
Complaints rose to 1,909 in April, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported, as consumer anger at airlines boiled over following video showing David Dao being violently removed from a United flight on April 9 to make room for crew members.
This and other airline incidents caught on mobile phone videos have been widely broadcast on social media, prompting congressional hearings with airline executives that raised questions about customer service and airline cost-cutting. Congress may take up the issue of airplane passenger rights when it considers a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration.
“If airlines don’t get their act together, we are going to act, it is going to be one size fits all,” said Bill Shuster, chairman of the House of Representatives’ transportation committee at a hearing in May. “Seize this opportunity because if you don’t, we’re going to come, and you’re not going to like it.”
Delta Air Lines' lack of diversity in senior leadership may allow for a culture of bias.
Southwest Airlines said in April it would end overbooking, while United announced policy changes, including boosting compensation for overbooked passengers to up to $10,000.
In October Tamika Cross, a Black physician, said she was discriminated against when responding to the staff’s call for a doctor to aid an unresponsive passenger during a flight from Detroit to Minneapolis.
Cross, a resident OBGYN physician at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, said when an additional call was made for a physician on board to “press your button” to assist, she did. The same flight attendant then asked to see her credentials and bombarded her with question such as, “What type of doctor are you? Where do you work? Why were you in Detroit?” — all while the man was still in need of help.
However, according to Cross, when a “‘seasoned’ white male approached the row and said he is a physician” the flight attendant told her “thanks for your help, but he can help us, and he has his credentials.” Cross asserts she didn’t see the man, who “fit the ‘description of a doctor,’” present any form of credentials.
Last May Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a 26-year-old political science major at the University of California-Berkeley and Iraqi refugee, was flying Southwest Airlines when he experienced what he calls “Islamophobia” from the airline and its employees.
“This is just the new normal for Muslims while flying,” said a rep from the Council on American-Islam Relations (CAIR).
While Makhzoomi was on the phone having a conversation in Arabic, a woman sitting near Makhzoomi stared, enough for Makhzoomi to notice she felt uncomfortable and prompt him to end the phone call. He wrapped up the conversation with a common phrase, insha’Allah, translating to “god willing.” The woman immediately left the docked plane, and within two minutes, Southwest security approached Makhzoomi saying, “You need to step out of the plane sir.”
Southwest blamed Makhzoomi for delaying the plane 30 minutes, refused him remittance and summoned the FBI for further questioning. Dogs sniffed him, his wallet was confiscated and FBI agents escorted him away. When questioned, agents pressed Makhzoomi, “You need to be very honest with us with what you said about the martyrs. Tell us everything you know about the martyrs.”
“The moment that she said that, I told her I never said that word, I only said ‘insha’Allah,’” Makhzoomi said. After brief further questioning, Makhzoomi was informed the airline would not fly him back to Oakland but that he was free to go. No further action was ensued by the FBI.
The company has been fined for its failure to properly accommodate its passengers with disabilities, putting a spotlight on the struggles people with disabilities face while traveling.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told Congress last week that the department had created a website to highlight passenger protections but she had not endorsed any new legal protections for airline passengers. Chao said it was in airlines’ “best interest to treat passengers with respect.”
The Transportation Department also said Wednesday in a statement that carriers canceled 1.6 percent of scheduled domestic flights in April, up from 0.9 percent in the same month last year.
American Airlines said Tuesday it would reduce leg room by one inch instead of two as originally planned on some seats in its Boeing 737 MAX jets, acknowledging customer concerns.
In May, American said it would shrink the distance between some seat backs, or pitch, on its new Boeing Co 737 MAX jets from the minimum of 31 inches on its current 737-800 fleet, to 29 inches.
The company said “airline customers feel increasingly frustrated by their experiences and less valued when they fly. We can be leaders in helping to turn around that perception.”