Citing what he says is a “widespread problem,” Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen announced that he will introduce legislation designed to prevent airlines from forcibly removing ticketed passengers from flights.
The Maryland lawmaker is circulating a letter on Capitol Hill asking for support for his “Customers Not Cargo Act,” which the letter says will “prohibit airlines from forcibly removing passengers after they have already boarded the plane due to oversales or airline staff seeking to fly as passengers.” The legislation comes amid calls for congressional hearings about passenger rights after the emergence of a video showing United Airlines having a passenger dragged off a plane scheduled to fly from Chicago to Louisville over the weekend.
International Business Times reported this week that less than three years before the incident, United Airlines told federal regulators that “every ticket, of course, guarantees a passenger a seat on the plane.” In an interview with IBT, Van Hollen said the video appeared to contradict that 2014 statement by United to the Department of Transportation.
“Clearly that’s not what they did in this instance or other instances,” Van Hollen said. “What’s pretty clear is that it is not uncommon for airlines when they overbook to not only tell passengers at the gate that they are involuntarily bumped, but passengers who have actually got on the airplane.”
Van Hollen said his legislation will target a 2008 federal rule that caps the amount that airlines must pay to ticketed passengers who are involuntarily removed from flights. That provision currently limits the payout to $1,350. The Democratic senator says that creates a financial incentive for airlines to forcibly remove passengers.
“The airline should be required to offer the passengers an incentive that gets someone to volunteer to deplane, rather than drag them off — and right now the incentives are in the wrong direction,” he told IBT. “There will be a price point at which someone will voluntarily get off the airplane. That’s what airlines should be required to do.”
In recent years, United has spent millions on federal lobbying and campaign contributions as the company and the larger airline industry has thwarted a series of passenger rights bills proposed in Congress. Van Hollen, though, suggested that the video — and the international outrage it has prompted — could provide a political boost to his initiative.
“When these issues have come up in the past with respect to passengers rights, there has been a lot of lobbying by the airlines,” he said. “I’m really glad in this instance we have this video that has shone a light on what can happen. People are being involuntarily removed from airlines and this just highlights what can happen when that gets out of control. This has pulled back the veil on the indignities that passengers experience on a regular basis.”