Segment 2 Of 3 Previous Hearing Segment(1) Next Hearing Segment(3)
SPEAKERS CONTENTS INSERTS
Page 18 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 AIRLINE PASSENGER RIGHTS, H.R. 700, H.R. 780, AND H.R. 908
Wednesday, March 10, 1999
House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Aviation, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Washington, D.C.
The subcommittee met, pursuant to call, at 10:00 a.m., in Room 2167, Rayburn House Office Building, John J. Duncan, Jr., (chairman of the subcommittee) presiding.
DUNCAN. I would like to call the hearing of the Aviation Subcommittee to order. I am going to yield my time for an opening statement to our very distinguished Chairman, the author of this particular bill, Chairman Shuster.
Mr. SHUSTER. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
We certainly appreciate the people who are here to testify today. When I heard of the horror stories in Detroit, I thought perhaps that is an aberration and unfortunate, that those things happen few and far between.
Then as we got into it, I realized that there is an enormous antagonism on the part of the traveling public against the airlines for the way they are being treated.
The situation in Detroit, while it was extreme in one sense, in another sense it symbolized some of the problems that we are facing. So, we put together our Passenger Bill of Rights.
Then I was surprised to see the response that I got to it. I cannot walk through the halls here without members or constituents coming up and telling me their horror stories.
For the first time in my career, when I held a press conference on this issue, the reporters at the press conference interrupted me to tell me their horror stories.
Page 19 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 So, we have struck a raw nerve here. I hope my friends in the airline industry understand that this is serious; understand that they have got to do better.
The statistics show that last year, there was a 26 percent increase. These are DOT yearly statistics. A 26 percent increase in passenger complaints. They also show that at the same time Southwest Airlines had a decline in complaints.
In fact, measured in complaints per 100,000 boardings, Southwest Airlines has 1/4, less than 1/4 the complaints of other airlines. So, we are not asking for something here that is impossible.
We are asking for something that one airline is able to achieve, and that is providing service that by and large customers are satisfied with. So, I think that we need to focus on this.
We need to proceed. We need to put together a Passenger Bill of Rights. I would emphasize that what I introduced is certainly not the last word. Indeed, I am sure it can be improved upon substantially.
Congressman Dingell has a proposal which deserves serious consideration, as does Congressman DeFazio, as do Senators McCain and Wyden. So, this is a starting point, but I think we have got to focus on this issue.
We have got to focus on this issue because the American people want us to focus on this issue. I need not go through the 10 points there in front of you. You know what they are. The point I would add, however, it has been pointed out to me that in some cases, it is not the airline which is at fault. That is absolutely true.
One change that I am already prepared to make is that where indeed it is the airport rather than the airline that is at fault, then the airline should have recourse against the airport. It is only fair.
That might give our airport friends some heartburn, but what is good for the goose is good for the gander. So, I believe we should be proceeding today to take the testimony of our witnesses, and to put together something that is positive, something that the airlines can live with or should be able to live with, so that we can improve the aviation travel for the American people.
Page 20 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 In closing, remember that aviation is a great success story. We had zero fatalities last year in commercial flying.
We have gone from 230 million passengers before airline deregulation to over 600 million last year, 660 million this year, and over a billion will be flying in the first decade of the next Century.
We had better, however, modernize air traffic control. We had better provide the funds necessary so that we can expand the competition at our airports. Surprise, surprise when you expand competition, the competitors suddenly treat their customers better.
So, I think this all goes hand-in-hand with our major FAA bill to unlock the Aviation Trust Fund, so the money in that Trust Fund can be spent as it should be spent to improve aviation.
I am thrilled that we have close to 130 co-sponsors on that bill. We just introduced it last week. In fact, we are ahead of where we were last year when we introduced our bill unlocking the Highway Trust Fund.
So, we are looking forward to marking that bill up. It passed unanimously out of Subcommittee yesterday. We will be taking it up tomorrow in Full Committee.
So, I am excited about the opportunity that we have to improve aviation for the American people, and to make the investments necessary so aviation can stay safe and become even a better opportunity for the American people as we move into the next Century.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. DUNCAN. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Lipinski.
Mr. LIPINSKI. Thank you, Chairman Duncan.
I want to say that I am a co-sponsor of this bill. I certainly support what Chairman Shuster wants to do. I would like to yield my time now to the gentleman who has really spearheaded this issue on the Democratic side.
Page 21 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 That is my good friend from Oregon, Congressman Peter DeFazio.
Mr. DEFAZIO. I thank the gentleman for yielding.
I was kind of anxious to speak in that I have been waiting 12 years for this day. I came to Congress 12 years ago. One of the first bills I introduced was the Airline Passenger Equity Act.
In fact, I just saw a former staffer come in the room who has gone bad and now works for the airlines, but she wrote the bill at the time. I did not mean that. This is a long overdue moment.
Last year when we had the airlines CEOs here, I said to them, you know, you are not just dealing with Peter DeFazio, liberal Democrats, and consumer advocates anymore. You have managed to alienate the most powerful constituencies in America through your practices.
It is the CEOs. The CEO of Sony in my District, who is absolutely livid with United Airlines and feels that he has not seen such arrogance in any other corporation and mistreatment.
It is the Chamber of Commerce in Eugene Springfield which has formed a special committee to talk about the deterioration of service; the extraordinary prices being extracted from the business community.
It cost me four times as much; 400 percent more to fly to Eugene in my District with United Airlines, than it does to Portland with United Airlines; four times as much on a Government fare ticket.
The difference is, of course, I have to drive 120 miles from Portland. These are the great benefits of deregulation, which are being experienced by hundreds of thousands of Americans everyday.
It is true. The people who fly casually, very occasionally, can often get a bargain fare. That is good. The benefits of deregulation should extend to all consumers, to all classes of consumers.
Page 22 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 They should not extract inordinate profits from one small group, being people who have to fly, business travelers. They should not extract inordinate profits from small cities that do not have competition, or even from larger cities where they have managed to dominate hub.
So, I look at the legislation before us as only a starting point in dealing with the pervasive problems of the aviation industry. There are a number of smaller sub- categories of things that will be considered, both in the bills which I introduced in this Congress, Chairman Shuster has introduced, and as he noted, having been introduced on the other side.
One small accomplishment will finally be noted today. This also goes to the fact of how hard it is to make any progress in this area. The FAA for years has been totally captive of the airline industry, and has been their handmaiden to help deliver profits to the industry in a whole host of areas.
So, regulations that benefit consumers are few and far between. Safety issues are even hard to get through the FAA when they cost money. To put value on a life, then the value is not very high.
Today, the Vice President and Secretary Slater will finally announce that the Department of Transportation is issuing a final rule that will require air carriers to let consumers know, prior to purchase, who they are flying with.
I flew on Monday with United Express. All of the uniforms looked like United. The plane was painted exactly like United. But guess what? If you looked at the small print, it was not United.
It was six guys from Wisconsin operating Air Wisconsin. Now, consumers would like to know that before they get on a plane. Are they really flying with United, which has a very good safety record, very good maintenance, and extraordinary experienced crews?
Page 23 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 They would like to know when they are actually flying on Air Wisconsin or some other contracting airline. So, that is one very small step for consumers.
There are a whole host of other areas where we need to arm consumers with the information they need to get better fares and to protect them against abusive practices.
I am just so pleased that the Chairman of the Full Committee and the Chairman of this Subcommittee are moving forward with these hearings.
I expect in the not too distant future, we will be marking up legislation. I will be offering a number of enhancements and amendments to that legislation.
I thank the gentleman from Illinois for yielding and I thank the Chairman for his indulgence.
Mr. DUNCAN. Thank you very much, Mr. DeFazio.
This will be the first of 2 days of major hearings on this bill. As Chairman Shuster mentioned, aviation has been probably one of the great success stories in this Country today. Last year, 615 million passengers flew commercially without a single fatality.
I think the airlines, of course, should be congratulated on their amazing safety record. Even though aviation safety improved last year, the Department of Transportation reports, and Chairman Shuster mentioned this, that the number of complaints about airline service rose 26 percent last year.
Anyone who flies often will at some time experience the aggravation of delays and flight cancellations. We have witnesses here today who have been through some horrible experiences on airlines, including passengers who were held on aircraft on the tarmac for up to 8 or 9 hours, and other abuses.
Fortunately, most passengers flying are reasonably satisfied with their treatment by the airlines. Nevertheless, everybody can do better. Everything can improve. Any person, any company, any airline that lacks the desire to improve will soon be in trouble.
Page 24 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 I know that many airlines place customer service as the top priority. With passenger travel expected to grow, as Chairman Shuster mentioned, to nearly one billion in less than 10 years, I think all airlines would want to make improvements in their customer service.
We are holding this hearing today because of the bill that Chairman Shuster has introduced, H.R. 700, the Aviation Passenger Bill of Rights Act of 1999. We all have learned a lot from Chairman Shuster over the years.
I have watched this Congress closely for more than 35 years now. I have never seen a better Chairman than Chairman Shuster. I know that since Chairman Shuster has introduced this bill, he has had people stopping him in the hallways, the gym, on the streets, and just about everywhere you can think of.
Also, people have stopped me to tell us about their air travel horror stories. This bill seems to have struck a cord, a real cord, with many people. However, some people have asked why should we have a special customer rights bill for air travel?
As the argument goes, customers have also experienced some problems at restaurants, clothing stores, car dealers, and other places. So, why are we talking about air passengers needing a bill of rights and not other customers?
I think there are special circumstances that dictate the need for this legislation and that make airline travel unique. You never hear of a restaurant closing its doors and not letting any of its customers out for 8 or 9 hours because the weather was too bad.
You never hear of a clothing store where you call ahead to purchase your suit, but once you are there the store has sold out of your suit. So, you are forced to wait at the store for 4 hours until a new suit arrives and you are handed a $5 food voucher for your trouble.
You have never heard of a situation where you go to a car dealer, an Oldsmobile dealer for example, and you are expecting to purchase the safety and reliability of an Oldsmobile. But the dealer says, 'oh by the way, we code-share with the Yugoslavians.' So, the car you have purchased is actually a Yugo.
Page 25 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 I do not mean to make light of the problems that we have heard regarding air travel, but I also want to point out that aviation is not like most other businesses. The witnesses we have here today will testify that they were forced to sit for over 8 hours without proper food, water, or basic facilities.
The witnesses we have here today will testify that this has not only happened during the infamous winter storm in Detroit on Northwest Airlines, but it has also happened on TWA and Virgin Atlantic.
One witness we have before us today will also tell us a very sad story regarding her 6-year-old son being molested while traveling unaccompanied with Northwest Airlines.
This story was brought to our attention when we were delivered a very disconcerting local news story regarding how unaccompanied minors are treated by airlines when they travel.
The report was done by WCCO, a CBS affiliate, in Minneapolis. I would like to show a very quick excerpt from this tape at this time.
Children flying alone; a growing market for airlines in an age when families are separated by distance or divorce. By some industry estimates, as many as one million kids may fly alone each year. Airlines charge a mandatory fee up to $60 round trip to supervise kids making connections.
What do some families get for their money when children fly alone? The I-TEAM's Gilda Unrue shows you.
Ms. UNRUE. This is where we found them; five children all flying as unaccompanied minors on Northwest Airlines sitting on a window sill.
The group is waiting at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for a connecting flight to Memphis. For the next 2 hours, the WCCO I-TEAM video taped a chain of events showing the airlines lack of supervision, even though parents are required to pay extra when their children fly alone with connections.
Page 26 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 The Airline's Unaccompanied Minor Policy says, Northwest Airlines will provide supervision for children accepted under the program from the time of boarding until the child is met at the final destination.
With these kids, that did not happen. Although the children will later arrive safely in Memphis, the father of two of them cannot believe what happened after he sees our video tape of their layover.
FATHER. I would not have imagined that it would have been like this.
Ms. UNRUE. First, he sees that no adult is in sight. The children are separated from the gate agents by a wide seating area and a wall. He watches as his 8-year-old daughter wonders off alone into the airport crowds.
Did anybody come up to you and saywhere did you go? Where have you been? Do not leave?
LITTLE CHILD. No, no one; no one, no; no one.
Ms. UNRUE. After 45 minutes waiting to board, Northwest announces a gate change due to mechanical problems.
Ms. UNRUE. The other passengers leave. The kids wait all alone.
FATHER. How long did that go on?
Ms. UNRUE. This went on for about 10 or 15 minutes.
Ms. UNRUE. Finally, a Northwest Airlines employee walks them to their new gate nearly a mile away.
LITTLE CHILD. Once we got behind her, she just walked ahead of us and did not really look back or anything.
Page 27 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Ms. UNRUE. If she had, she would have noticed she had a straggler. As the kids walked through the crowded airport, the smallest boy is lagging behind, often running or being forced by his brother to keep up.
At the new gate, the Northwest Airlines employee drops the children off. About 10 minutes later, another announcement.
Ms. UNRUE. Because the gate agent who brought them there has left, the five children wait about a minute before following the other passengers into the terminal, unnoticed and unsupervised. The children make the gate change by themselves.
There is a moment of panic when these two brothers realize the youngest has forgotten his suitcase. All alone, the boy dashes back to get it, passing the gate agent twice; no sign he has even been noticed as he catches up with the group.
Little Child. Nobody really cared what really happened to us.
Ms. UNRUE. And the children made the gate change by themselves.
Mr. ALSTON. Yes. I saw that on the video tape.
Ms. UNRUE. John Alston, a spokesman. Why was not someone attending to them coming over and telling them what was going to take place and to stay put?
Mr. ALSTON. Had they waited a moment, we would have had a chance to say, you know, we are going to get you to the next gate. They did take off on their own. Again, we ask parents to tell their kids not to do that.
FATHER. I feel a little bit like I was let down by the airline. You know, I mean, they said there would be somebody with them at airline times. That obviously is not the case.
Page 28 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Mr. DUNCAN. Unfortunately, we do not have time to run the entire four parts to the story. However, I think you can see why there is some concern over the treatment of children traveling alone.
Unfortunately, the reality is that today about 1/3 of U.S. families are one-parent households. That often means that children have to fly from one city to another to visit parents.
Chairman Shuster's bill would require the Department of Transportation to study air carrier policies on unaccompanied children. We, of course, will get into many, many other things regarding the treatment of passengers.
We also have witnesses here today who represent the airports, travel agents, and business travelers. I am sure that we will get into many interesting and unfortunate situations before we are through.
We are going to try to do, of course, what we can to correct as many of these situations as possible. At this time, I would like to recognize the Ranking Member of the Full Committee, Mr. Oberstar, for any statement he wishes to make.
Mr. OBERSTAR. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I appreciate the hard work that went into crafting this bill on your part, Mr. Lipinski, but principally, Chairman Shuster. It takes a lot to get our Chairman riled up, but when he does, get out of the way.
This series of abuses that often are dismissed as anecdotal, isolated incidents, something that just happens once in awhile, a little lapse has instead become a pattern of conduct throughout the industry.
It is so severe that it really has angered our Chairman and provoked him to take action that, as Mr. DeFazio said, would have been dismissed by many as the gentleman from Oregon did years ago, introduced this bill or a similar bill to it.
Page 29 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 I think the legislation arises out of real situations, real problems that need to be addressed. They should be addressed by the airlines themselves. The fact that many have failed has provoked this kind of reaction, including this extensive in-depth hearing today.
The message from all this ought to be airlines, clean up your act! You should not wait until legislation is passed. Customer service is your priority. Customer safety is your highest responsibility.
Southwest Airlines has sent a message to all carriers. You can do all of that, quality service, safety, and not have to charge a lot to deliver a quality product. There are some very simple things like providing information to travelers.
Passengers are not informed, inadequately informed, waiting long times, held in the dark. They get frustrated. They get angry. They get fearful.
Passengers are often told they are traveling on a single flight. If you look at your ticket, it says Flight 11. Only to find out that a part of that flight involves switching to another aircraft and sometimes another air carrier.
Sometimes as I can testify, the plane operating the second part of that flight will leave before the first plane arrives, which creates a very interesting situation; another example of airline creativity.
They have managed to create a concept of flight with two aircraft with the same flight number, in the air, at the same time. What about the people who miss their flight because the first one was delayed, for whatever reason, and you could not make the connection?
Then there was a whole series on an international flight, Trans-Pacific flight, where business meetings, events, extremely important meetings have had to be canceled.
As I heard from businessmen, perhaps thousands of dollars lost in deals to be made or sealed. We will hear testimony today about many of these outrages.
People waiting for inordinately long times calling an 800 number, only to hear music, or nothing, or a recording, but rarely a live person with real information to give them.
Page 30 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 We will hear about passengers held on an aircraft for excruciatingly long periods of time, without explanation, difficulty cutting through airline, not Government, airline red tape to get compensation when their trips have failed.
The airlines all have choices; they can develop plans and procedures. These are acts of God, they say, when you have big snow storms, rain, or other events of nature. But they can have back-up plans.
If you are going to have a massive snow storm and your snowplow operators could not get out to the air field to plow, then make sure they all have a Hum-V, or a snowmobile, or a sled dog to get them in to do the job you have paid them to do to get your airplane to operate the way it is supposed to operate.
Action by Congress is, I think, reluctant as our Chairman has indicated. We will come decisively to push airline compliance with simple customer relation initiatives. I think we ought to go along the line of developing clear policies, assuring that airlines have clear policies on frequent flyer programs.
They run the gamut; all sorts of things. You cannot figure them out; delay, diversion, cancellation procedures, refund procedures, and easy accessibility for consumers, meaning travelers for that information, a forum for complaints readily accessible, publicity by the Department of Transportation on these complaint statistics, so passengers can make informed decisions about they carrier they travel on.
In another matter that I particularly applaud the Chairman for including in his bill, and that is economic cancellations. It is a very difficult thing to figure out. When the reporting is required and is complied with as required in this bill, and we find a pattern of economic cancellations, then I think there will be grounds for decisive action by the Department.
Passengers will find that those cancellations will either disappear or become greatly fewer in nature. When the airline has to reimburse passengers, I think they will make a decision that it is better to fly that leg of the flight, rather than over-fly a community.
Page 31 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 I have had problems in my District and in other Districts that members have talked to me about over the years. I said, just gather the statistics.
Once we get a 6 month record of how many over-flights there were, clearly for economic purposes, they did not want to land at that little airport, send it into the DOT. They begin the job of collecting the data and call the carrier in question. Suddenly, those flights all take on a spirit of normalcy. We should not have to do that. This part of the legislation is going to be very, very tough, and very important.
I think it will help people immensely. I know that at the end of the process, we are going to hear from the other side. Regulation will put the average commercial aviation operation out of business.
As sure as the sun rises and sets, strict Government regulations will retard commercial aviation, if not kill it entirely. Well, those ominous words were said in 1925, as the Government began safety regulation of airlines.
As we take a look at making the airlines do what they ought to be doing, the customer relations, I am sure we will hear many of those same words.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. DUNCAN. Thank you very much, Mr. Oberstar.
We do need to get on to our witnesses as quickly as possible. We will place the full statements of all members in the record.
I would like to request any members who wish to make opening statements at this time, if they could hold it to about 2 or 3 minutes. I will recognize Mr. Mica at this time.
Mr. MICA. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I will try to be as brief as possible. For the most part, I believe that airlines in this Country do a tremendous job in serving the public. All who are a part of the flying public have horror stories to tell.
Page 32 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Unfortunately, from a personal service industry, the airline business has become a rather jaded bottom line, pack them in like sardines industry.
It is important that Congress take time like they are today to review the actions and practices of an industry that is now consolidating and limiting passenger rights as they are pressured to make profits and increase their passenger share.
One of my major concerns has been the over-zealous security measures that have been instituted by Government and by the airline industry. In a free Country, I am appalled that Americans are subject to illegal search and seizure, and subjected to questioning only equal to tactics that were employed in the Former Soviet Union, just to board a domestic aircraft.
Another area that I believe that needs attention is the treatment of our disabled passengers. Some of the ordeals I have witnessed relating to the treatment of our disabled should not be endured by anyone, however physically fit they are.
I, again, believe that we need to look at the security procedures that separate a baby from its mother, an American from his Civil Rights, and his protection under the Constitution.
I applaud Chairman Shuster and Chairman Duncan on helping to air the soiled linen of an airline industry laundry that has, for too long, been tucked in the closet and not paid attention to by this Subcommittee, the Congress, or the regulators who are in charge.
I thank you and yield back the balance of my time.
Mr. DUNCAN. Thank you very much, Mr. Mica. Mr. Lipinski yielded his time a few minutes ago. I would like to come back to him at this time.
Mr. LIPINSKI. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
As I mentioned earlier, I support this bill very enthusiastically. Both Chairman Shuster and Chairman Duncan mentioned the 6,000 complaints that the Department of Transportation receives each and every year.
Page 33 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 I believe really that is just a fraction of the complaints that are made by customers of airlines. I think most of the customers will contact the airline rather than contacting the Department of Transportation.
I believe that, in general, as airlines become bigger and bigger, they respect their passengers less and less. The consolidation of the airline industry, as well as the lack of competition, only intensifies the situation.
Normally, customers who are not treated well simply take their business elsewhere. However, when an airline dominates a city's only airport, consumers do not have a choice. They cannot really take their business elsewhere.
I think certain airlines know they have a captive market. They do not worry about customer service as a result. Airlines need to be reminded that their passengers are paying customers and deserve to be treated with respect. H.R. 700 is a wake-up call to the airlines that says passengers do have rights that must be respected. I believe that H.R. 700 already is a very good bill. It could be improved by including my legislation on carry-on baggage.
Excess carry-on baggage has become a real problem on aircraft today. Each airline has its on policy on what and how much each passenger can bring on board. This creates a confusing array of carry-on baggage standards.
My legislation would create a reasonable, industry-wide standard for carry-on baggage that would apply to all airlines. I believe that passengers have a right to predictability when they travel.
With my legislation, passengers would know in advance what they could bring on board, regardless of what carrier they are flying that day. I was going to state publicly that since Chairman Shuster is here, that I hope that he would give serious consideration to including my carry-on baggage legislation in H.R. 700.
Page 34 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Since he is not here, I am going to ask Chairman Duncan to convey that wish of mine to the Full Committee Chairman. With those remarks, I yield back the balance of my time.
Mr. DUNCAN. Thank you very much, Mr. Lipinski.
Does anyone else wish to make an opening statement at this time on this side?
Does anyone else over here have any opening statement?
Ms. JOHNSON. Mr. Chairman.
Mr. DUNCAN. Ms. Johnson.
Ms. JOHNSON. Mr. Chairman, I just want to thank you and submit my full statement for the record.
Mr. DUNCAN. All of the full statements will be included in the record, if members will just simply submit them. Does anyone else have anything? Mr. Baldacci.
Mr. BALDACCI. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Just very briefly in recognition for our witnesses and their stories, which are very compelling, I have to say that 3 years ago our Office worked on a case with a person with a disability in dealing with the airlines, the Department of Transportation, and the court system.
A suit was brought. The lack of care and consideration by the airline industry for people with disabilities, that Mr. Mica had mentioned, was just reprehensible what is done; and what is done to all people, which is why it is important to have this concluded in this legislation.
We may have deregulated the airlines and allowed for that to be deregulated, but it does not mean that we have to turn our backs. There may be some airlines that say that they are ready when you are, but sometimes you are not ready for what they give you.
Page 35 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 So, I think it is important that we move ahead on this legislation. I would like to be able to enter those 5,000 complaints in that one year that, that particular airline had referred to the Department of Transportation.
In this particular individual's case in the State of Maine, it was just reprehensible what was done to them, and what was done to other people with disabilities, and what they are forced to go through or not go through.
In some cases, they have to take alternative means of transportation because of the lack of treatment by the airlines. I would like to be able to enter the rest of my statement into the record, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. DUNCAN. Yes, that will be done. Anyone else wish to make any opening comments?
Mr. DUNCAN. All right. If not, unfortunately we do have a vote going on, on the Floor. We will break to go take that vote. Then we will start with the first witness as soon as we return.
Mr. DUNCAN. I want to apologize to the witnesses and to others. We had two votes instead of just one. We will call up panel number one at this time.
We are very pleased and appreciative that each member of this panel has taken time out from what, I know, are very busy schedules to be here with us, especially to wait on us as you have had to.
We have on the first panel Mr. Joel Pearlman from Columbia, Maryland; Ms. Tami Rourke from New Berry, Michigan; Ms. Barbara Plecas from Walled Lake, Michigan; Ms. Judy Hopp from Royal Oak, Michigan; and Ms. Patricia A. Shank from Frederick, Maryland.
We thank each of you for being here. We ordinarily proceed in the order in which the witnesses are listed in the call of the hearing. That means Mr. Pearlman that we will start with you and then we will go to Ms. Rourke.
Page 36 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 You may begin your statement.
TESTIMONY OF JOEL PEARLMAN, COLUMBIA, MD; TAMI ROURKE, NEW BERRY, MI; BARBARA PLECAS, WALLED LAKE, MI; JUDY HOPP, ROYAL OAK, MI; AND PATRICIA A. SHANK, FREDERICK, MD
Mr. PEARLMAN. Good morning, Mr. Chairman.
I want to thank you for the opportunity to comment on H.R. 700. I do not think you could believe how welcome this comes to me. I had a horrible experience on TWA, which I will get into.
Even though I am an attorney, I was so totally frustrated with the current state of the law and my lack of options to do anything about it, that I dreamed that there would be some sort of a Congressional action.
This was on December 24th, long before there was anything that I know of. So, I am totally pleased that there is a forum to talk about this. What happened was we had tickets to go from Baltimore to San Francisco to arrive Christmas Eve to be with family for Christmas Eve dinner.
We got to the airport. The weather was perfect. There were no apparent problems of any type anywhere. The first thing we were told by TWA was that there were ''mechanical problems'' on their flight.
That it would be hours late. We would miss our connection. Obviously, I asked if they could route us on another carrier. They said, well, we have been trying to route passengers on other carriers for hours now. There are not any other carriers that could take you. I was somewhat not sure if that was true or not, but there was not a whole lot I could do about it.
So, we essentially waited and waited. We finally got a flight into St. Louis, which was our hub station. When we landed in St. Louis, we were late. We were anxious to try to make a connection and basically get there 3 hours late instead of not getting there at all.
Page 37 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 The pilot said, well, passengers I have to tell you. We are going to be on the aircraft for ''awhile.'' So, I thought that meant 5 or 10 minutes. After 15 or 20 minutes, I looked out the window and I could see maybe 10 or 15 TWA aircraft just sitting there on the field, not moving, not doing anything.
So, I said, is there a problem? The answer was, well, there just are not any gates, TWA gates, that would allow passengers to get in. I said, is that not unusual? This never happened to me before.
They said, well, we are not really sure what is causing this problem, but we will get you off as soon as we can. After an hour or someanwhile you could not get up. You had to sit in your seat.
They were not serving water, food, or anything. Passengers were getting very fidgety. It is a totally different experience, I believe, sitting in an aircraft, being confined to an aircraft when it is on the ground, than when it is moving.
It feels much more confining and it is much more difficult. People and children were getting very upset after an hour. So, I asked the stewardess if she could request the pilot to let the staircase down and allow passengers to get out and maybe take a bus back into the airport.
She came back and said there was a staircase. It had one rail on it. ''It would be against FAA regulations to put the staircase down and let the passengers out because it had to have two rails. One rail was unsafe.''
Therefore, were not let out. I think we ended up on that plane almost 2 hours; probably a little bit less than sufficient time under this bill to be compensated. Still, no idea of what was going on.
So, we got into the terminal in total chaos. People sitting on the floor. None of the gates were marked. Everything was delayed indefinitely. Still, no explanation as to what was going on.
Page 38 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 So, I looked for a TWA manager. There was none to be found. I called the TWA 800 number. I did get through easily. They had no idea what the situation was. They said they had no idea what the situation as. I tried to reach the FAA because I thought there might be some safety problems involved. Well, since it was Christmas Eve, all of the offices were closed.
The only way I got any hint of what was going on was some passenger said, there may be a sick-out going on. TWA never admitted that or never said anything about it. Most passengers, I think, were stuck there over night.
We were really lucky. A few hours later, TWA got us on a flight to San Francisco. I asked the pilot or co-pilot of that flight if TWA had, by now, announced the situation of the sick-out?
He said, no, they will never announce it. They like to sweep this kind of thing under the rug. I found out later that it was 2.5 days after this that TWA finally issued a press release explaining the work stoppage.
So, I believe that there really was no effort at all to tell passengers what the true situation was there. Meanwhile, a couple of days later, I knew after I found out there was a work stoppage, I went to a TWA counter and asked if they would endorse my return ticket to another carrier so I would not have to go through this again.
Basically, they said no. It just was not certain enough that the strike would last for a week or so. So, they were not going to endorse it in any kind of meaningful way. In sum, I support the bill fully. I think perhaps compensation should be paid to passengers that are involved in a strike, even though it does border on safety reasons because airlines are not permitted to fly without a full complement of crew.
Mr. DUNCAN. Thank you very much, Mr. Pearlman. Ms. Rourke.
Ms. ROURKE. Good morning, Mr. Chairman.
Page 39 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 This moment is very special to me. I appreciate your invitation for having me here. More importantly, this moment is for my son. I am going to go ahead and read this so you can get the full effect of what we have been through.
My name is Tami Rourke. I am here today to represent the millions of children who fly each year in the airlines' Unaccompanied Minor Program, and for the parents, grand parents, and other family members who are uninformed as to what perilous situations their children are put into.
I, too, was an uninformed parent finding myself and my son in a situation where in order to see his father in Arizona, we had very limited options. The chosen option was the Unaccompanied Minor Program of Northwest Airlines.
This choice is what has brought me in front of you today. On December 20, 1996, my son, then 6-years-old, boarded Northwest Airlines as an unaccompanied minor and rode for the holidays to Tucson, Arizona.
He was to return home to Michigan on January 4, 1997. This date will forever burn in my memory. On January 4th, on a scheduled stop in Minneapolis-St. Paul, weather grounded his and many other planes. After finally being contacted by a Northwest Airlines representative, who had my son with her, we were assured twice that he would be staying in a hotel room with one or two other children his age and an adult supervisor.
Feeling helpless and completely at the mercy of Northwest Airlines, I just prayed the Lord would take care of him, unaware that the Lord had another plan. When he did arrive home and was in my arms again, the nightmare that has been our lives for the past 2 years began to unravel.
He spoke to me of the night alone in the hotel room over 500 miles from home with a then 15-year-old male who sexually molested and terrorized him for over 6 hours, while the Northwest contracted security slept in the hall.
Page 40 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 As the laws and rules of the airlines' Unaccompanied Minor Passenger Program stand now, the only recourse we had to hold the airlines accountable for the neglect, care, and supervision of my son was a lawsuit.
The information myself, my attorneys, and WCCO-TV's Gilda Unrue in Minneapolis uncovered during the course of this lawsuit is sickening, at best. The tactics used by Northwest Airlines and their attorneys during the past 2 years have victimized my son and our family over and over again.
The arrogance displayed and the statements made by Northwest's chief spokesman, John Alston, blatantly demonstrate the true lack of care and concern for my children and yours.
My goal from the beginning was not to take money from Northwest Airlines, as that would have been an easy way out for them. My goal is to make parents aware, but most of all to change the rules for the Unaccompanied Minor Programs for all airlines.
Right now, your airlines are responsible to report three things each month to the Department of Transportation: how many on-time arrivals and departures; how many complaints they receive, but not to include the nature of these complaints; and how many pieces of mishandled baggage that have had.
America, nowhere does it state how many mishandled children they have had. It is time to change this. I will not allow what happened to my child to happen to yours without a fight and neither should you.
So, please, ladies and gentlemen, stand up for the children of this Country and pass this bill today. I thank you for the invitation to speak today to help pass this very important piece of legislation.
I will continue to fight until a law has been passed to ensure the reporting of these incidents involving children participating in the airlines' Unaccompanied Minor Program.
Page 41 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Thank you.
Mr. DUNCAN. Thank you very much, Ms. Rourke. Ms. Plecas.
Ms. PLECAS. Good morning. Thank you for having me here. My story pales by comparison to Ms. Rourke and her child.
I was one of the people on the tarmac in Detroit on January 3rd for 7 hours. My plane was the fourth plane to land in Detroit. I believe that the passengers on my flight were very civilized. They were very helpful.
They wanted very much to be patient with what was going on. We were not getting good information. We did not consider ourselves to be particularly gifted passengers. We did not consider ourselves to have knowledge of running an airline.
But we had offered a number of solutions to the crew as to how we might disembark the plane. That would include taking us to a maintenance hanger where we were safely indoors. We would disembark on some stairs and be bused to a terminal.
To perhaps use a terminal of another airline that did not have snow or a plane blocking the ability to disembark. To use the emergency exit shut, and to then be bused to a terminal.
All of those fell on death ears with Northwest Airlines. the Captain on our plan expressed his own frustration, and Northwest officials being sort of frozen in their tracks over the situation. What we could not understand was that planes continued to arrive in Detroit.
I think the last number that I read was an official 32 planes landed when they knew that plane four, that we could not disembark for a number of hours. At about the fifth hour on the plane, the tanks from the laboratories began to overflow, making them unusable.
Parents traveling with children had only packed enough supplies for a 2 hour flight from Tampa to Detroit. The rest of the formula, diapers, medicine, and everything was in the baggage compartment rather than in their carry-on baggage.
Page 42 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 So, we had a number of children who were hungary, who needed formula, who could not even have a diaper changed because of the inadequate supplies. There were a number of passengers who had to take medication with food and water.
There was no food and water available. Patients dug into their own carry-on baggage to find pretzels and bottled water to try to help out people who needed to take their medication.
One gentleman, at about the 5 hour mark, just wanted off the plane. He could not stand it anymore. He was immediately read his rights. That there would be someone at the gate to arrest him if he did not calm down. That encouraged us that maybe there was actually someone at the gate and we might get there someday, even if only to be arrested. We were constantly chastised about sitting in our seats.
That if we did not sit in our seats, that we would lose our place in line. We kind of liked being forced. We did not want to be 32. I do not know who would report that, but we were not going to run the risk.
People were agitated. They were tired. They were frustrated. Unlike the story that Northwest tells you that we were 2 to 3 miles out on the tarmac, our flight being the fourth to land, we could practically reach out and touch the gates.
The gates were filled with empty planes, one of the reasons we suspected we could not disembark. The pilot then told us that the reason the empty planes sat there was because they did no have certified crews to move those planes away from the gates.
When we finally disembarked, we saw crews all over the airport, Northwest crews. So, you kind of get frustrated because you think that the excuses that you were given were disingenuous.
That you were not being told the truth. That they just simply were not competent to handle the situation. The aftermath of the public relations was that the tarmac people were being blamed for not having a bonding experience.
Page 43 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 I do not know. We did not feel like holding hands and singing ''cum by yah'' on my plane. But we were the victims and we were being shamed for having an improper attitude about what had occurred.
I had, had surgery in July, a serious colon surgery. I needed regular use of the lavatory facilities that were really not available to me. We felt sorry once we disembarked.
The terminal was in total chaos with planes being canceled. There were children sleeping on the dirty floors. There was garbage all over the airport. It was just an impossible situation.
We would have liked to have had Northwest say, you know what, we did not have a good plan in place. We screwed up. We are sorry. We hope you accept a ticket. We want to believe that you will feel this is compensation for this inconvenience.
It does not feel like it is compensation. We are not looking for money. We are looking for some changes. We are looking for a difference in customer attitude.
If the provider of customer service in this Country does not understand that, that is the backbone of their business, then maybe we should do away with hubs where they control 70 percent of the business and they do not have to perform well in order to have a captive clientele.
I would hate to see that legislated. I would think good business would dictate that, that is the right thing to do. They apparently are not preoccupied with good business, just more excuses.
Thank you very much.
Mr. DUNCAN. Thank you very much, Ms. Plecas. Ms. Hopp. I understand you had a little trouble getting here for today's hearing.
Ms. HOPP. My flight was canceled last night.
Page 44 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 My name is Judy Hopp. I was traveling with my husband, Richard Story, and my two children, Taylor, who was 6-1/2 and Madeline, who was 4-1/2.
We were to leave Portland, Oregon, on January 2nd, Saturday, and have a direct flight to Detroit to go home. When we arrived outside to check our luggage, we were told we had to step inside because our flight had been canceled.
So, we went up to the ticket agent and he told us that Detroit was not closed. They did have 12 inches, I think he said, of snow. But we would have to make new arrangements. He wanted to book us on a flight to Minneapolis, which was leaving in 2 hours.
We would somehow get home from there, being that Minneapolis is a hub. We asked if we could stay in Portland another night and fly out the next day, being that we had a place to stay with my sister?
They told us now. We had to leave when they wanted us to leave. So, we got to Minneapolis. We got on the plane. When we were in the air, we were told that all flights to Detroit now are canceled. We arrived in Minneapolis approximately 8:00 p.m.
We went to go stand in a customer service line. We found out kind of another customer service line opened. My husband and I split up. One went in one line and one stayed in the other.
He was told real matter of factly when he got up to the line that we were now booked on a 7:15 a.m. flight to Cincinnati. He was told real matter of factly. It was kind of odd. That we were not to be put-up anywhere.
It was not Northwest's fault. It was due to bad weather and we had to make our own accommodations. I was still waiting in the other line. He came and stood over there. I went and started calling hotels.
I found out there were no more hotels within the shuttle radius of the airport. So, eventually after we were done dealing with customer service, who did cab fare reimbursement to get to a hotel.
Page 45 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 It was now 11:00 p.m. So, we had stood in line for 3 hours. We went down to the taxi lines to take a taxi to a hotel. The line was enormous. Somebody in the front of the line told us he had been waiting there 2.5 hours for a taxi.
Now, it is midnight and we are on a 7:15 a.m. flight. We knew our only thing was to get some sleep. We went and found a corner of the airport floor to go sleep. My one daughter was complaining to me, why cannot I turn off the lights?
The next daughter is complaining to me, turn off the music and the mundane announcement about protect your luggage at all times that comes over every 6 minutes because I timed it.
We tried to get some sleep. By 5:00 a.m. we were all up. We went to go find where our flight was going to be leaving for Cincinnati. Well, we got there. When we got up to the counter, the woman said to us, what are you doing going to Cincinnati?
I was like, we just want to get home. So, she told us, no. We should not go to Cincinnati because there were no flights from Cincinnati to Detroit. So, now at this point, she said she could confirm us. It is now Sunday morning.
She could confirm us on a Tuesday night flight to Detroit. Other than that, we would have to go standby. We said we would take our chances and go standby. We were really excited when we were called on the standby flight.
We boarded at noon. The flight took approximately 1:00 p.m. We were served drinks and peanuts on the flight. We landed at 2:30 p.m. We were originally informed by or pilot that it was going to be another 1 to 2 hours before we would get to the gate.
At this point, we became incensed. I mean, we are thinking 1 to 2 hours and we have already been dealing with airports for 24 hours. After 4 hours of sitting on the tarmac, which is now a new and familiar word to me, the pilot announced that the stewardesses would come around with another round of drinks.
Page 46 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 They came around with water. Meanwhile, at this time, first class is still being served drinks, food, and other things. I had one box of crackers on me. I waited until my kids were saying they were absolutely starving before I finally brought it out.
There was a family behind us with three children. I explained to my daughter that we had to share. I told her one day she would understand this. We were total time on the tarmac 7.5 hours. Total time on the aircraft itself was 9.5 hours.
We got in at 10:00 p.m. The luggage area was chaos. They told us at this point because it was due to weather, we would have to keep coming back to try and find our luggage. The next night, Monday night, I sent my husband back out because my kids' snow pants are in our bags.
Everything was in our bags. He went out Monday night, found one bag, and that was it. At this point, though, Northwest was telling us do not come out. We will send your bags home.
We finally got a bag on Wednesday, January 6th. That bag, I think, did have my daughter's snow pants. The last bag, we are still waiting for, which had my daughter's stuffed animal that she has had since she was born. Every night, where is Rudy? We got that one 12 days later.
I guess what I find so frustrating also is you can almost fly anywhere in the world using Northwest by calling an 800 number.
But to call customer service was a toll call. So, every time I would be at work wanting to call and inquire about my luggage or inquire about if we were getting any compensation, I always had to charge it to my home phone.
At one time, I was on hold for 25 minutes waiting to talk to a supposed supervisor. It was extremely frustrating. That is it. Thank you.
Mr. DUNCAN. Thank you very much, Ms. Hopp. Ms. Shank.
Page 47 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Ms. SHANK. Good morning, Mr. Chairman.
My name is Patricia Shank. I am a Registered Nurse. I work for Credit Memorial Hospital in Frederick, Maryland. I thank you for the opportunity to be here to testify today.
Five companions and I purchased a vacation package to London through Continental, who code shares with Virgin Atlantic, to provide a non-stop flight to London. We were to depart on the 14th of January at 7:00 p.m. on Virgin Atlantic Flight 4422.
As you may recall, that day Washington was hit with a major ice storm. Fully expecting the flight to be canceled, I began to call the airport repeatedly from 9:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. Each time I was told the flight was on schedule.
When we arrived at the airport, my car was a sheet of ice. We were really nervous about boarding a plane. when I checked in, I questioned whether the plane was icy and if it was safe.
They reassured me everything was fine. In good faith, we boarded the aircraft a half-hour late ''due to a security check.'' That was somewhere between 6:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Only after boarding the aircraft did they tell us there was ice on the plane and we would have to wait for de-icing.
We were then repeatedly told we would have to wait our turn to de-ice, but no one had any idea how long that would take because Dulles Airport only had one de-icing machine.
Finally, at 1:00 a.m., which was some 6 to 7 hours we had been sitting there, not one but three de-icing machines showed up and tried for 2 solid hours to de-ice this plane before they gave up.
They then decided to pump these same de-icing fumes into the cabin, not once, but twice which left us ill for several days. During the 9 hours that we were forced to wait, we were repeatedly remanded to our seat if we tried to stand up.
Page 48 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Because I was turned around in my seat, I was personally scolded by a male flight attendant and told, ''you must sit and face forward and at least appear to watch the safety video or I can lose my job,'' which was the second time it was being shown in these 9 hours, and were not going anywhere.
I personally asked to get off and wait in the terminal several times and was denied. Now, unlike her case, we were not on the runway. We were attached to the gate. There was no danger to just open the door and let us out.
After my last request, the Captain came on the overhead and stated that passengers were asking why they could not wait in the terminal, even though we were in Dulles Airport in Washington, we were on British soil and abruptly made no further comment.
Now, I want to know what that meant. Did I forfeit my American rights and become a British prisoner because that is how I felt? Three of us suffer from severe arthritis. My husband had just had major back surgery in June.
They were in pain from being forced to sit in this confined space. I also saw people being unloaded in wheelchairs and wondered how well they tolerated this ordeal.
At 3:00 a.m., only after the flight crew itself had run out o hours were we herded into a chaotic terminal to wait 2 more hours to be offered to be taken to a hotel at 5:00 a.m., but to be brought back at noon for a flight that may or may not take off that evening at 6:00 p.m. or 7:00 p.m.
They refused to keep us in the hotel past noon. When we declined this, we were denied our luggage. We had our medicines, personal items, and phone contacts in there. Our luggage then went to London without us the next day and they did not deliver it as promised because it was ''a breach of security to open the cargo door,'' which was the third story they had told us.
We were unable to contact the people in London who were to meet us. My brother, who is behind me, has lost a valuable business opportunity that cannot be replaced. Now, I want to be perfectly clear that I do not hold the airlines responsible for the weather.
Page 49 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 I hold them responsible for the bad judgment they exercised with this flight. Not only were we forced to endure these conditions, 2 months later I have yet to receive even one dollar of my money back for a trip that never happened.
Since our tickets were purchased through Continental, but our major problem was with Virgin Atlantic, we have been back and forth between these two as to who is responsible. Virgin Atlantic told me Continental was handling it.
Continental's initial response to my complaint is for them to deny it ever happened and I should be happy they offered to put me in a hotel for 6 hours. Since then, I have written a second letter of complaint.
As of only last Friday, a Continental representative told me on the phone she has reinvestigated my complaint by calling other passengers at random from the manifest and now has agreed that indeed this is true by who she has called.
She stated she was only going by what Virgin Atlantic told her and now agrees we are telling the truth. I would like to know what kinds of games these airlines are playing? I truly feel my rights as an American citizen were from me right in our own Nation's Capitol and there is nothing I can do about it.
I do not know how to explain to you how it feels to have your rights violated and you have no control over your own safety and well-being. The airlines personnel are protected from passenger abuse from Federal regulations, as they should be. But where are the regulations to protect passengers from the airlines' abuse and poor judgment?
How is it possible for them to hold me hostage against my will, force me to sit and face forward for 9 hours, until you can no longer feel your legs, and expose me to noxious fumes?
Our legislators must move to pass laws to protect passengers. Until you do, we will continue to be at the mercy of the airlines who hold all of the cards.
Page 50 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 I fully support Mr. Shuster's bill and sincerely request your help in seeing this much needed legislation move forward so that others do not have to endure this kind of treatment. Due to time constraints, I am unable to provide further details, however, I would like one question answered about that night. I was still in the U.S.A.; was I not?
Mr. DUNCAN. Well, Ms. Shank, I will just say that I do not think there is any excuse for Virgin Atlantic to have held you for 7 to 9 hours on the plane when it was still attached to the gate.
I just do not think there is any excuse for that. I am going to yield my time for questions to Chairman Shuster.
Mr. SHUSTER. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
We certainly appreciate your testimony, your heart felt testimony. I want to point out that the experience I have had since I introduced this legislation is one, certainly the airline CEOs have clamoring to get in to see me.
I, of course, was willing to meet with them and I did meet with them last week. My sense is that they dismiss much of this as ''anecdotal.'' These are ''anecdotal'' stories.
When I pointed out to them in my office that the FAA says there is a 26 percent increase in complaints last year over the year before, I was told that, that really was not true.
That indeed that figure simply represented a January comparison of one year to a January comparison of the previous year. Therefore, since January was such a bad year, that is why it was not an accurate figure.
I would like to report that we checked with the DOT and the figure of a 26 percent increase in complaints is an accurate figure, according to the FAA. It is an annual figure. It does not represent a January to January figure. So, I am a bit disappointed that a CEO of a major airline would sit in my office and give me bad information.
Page 51 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Now, to be charitable, perhaps he simply was uninformed. I am still awaiting if there is further evidence. I am certainly open to receive it. I have even become more concerned, since I introduced my legislation with, first, this so-called dismissive attitude that these are anecdotal stories.
Secondly, being told that the 26 percent increase was not accurate, when I confirmed that it is. Thirdly, with the spin that is being put on this legislation. That well, it is going to impact safety. It is going to cost the airlines and therefore the passengers more money.
With regard to the safety spin, that is just bologna. There is nothing here that is going to cause a safety problem. We are not saying to take off in bad weather. We are saying go back to the gate in bad weather.
Further, even if they wanted to take off, they could not because the air traffic controller is the one who decides whether a plane is cleared to take off. So, this safety spin is hog wash.
Secondly, the cost issue. One of the CEOs presented me with a paper showing what the cost would be of my legislation, and indeed the cost of the legislation being proposed by Senator McCain and Senator Wyden, and the cost of the legislation being proposed by Congressman Dingell.
Taking their numbers, the airline numbers, the interesting thing to me is that of the ten points in my bill of rights, six of them have no cost to the airlines.
In the McCain-Wyden bill, three of the conditions have no cost attached to them. In the Dingell bill, seven of the provisions in that bill have no cost to the airlines attached to them.
So, perhaps as a starter, we should just accept my six no-cost, McCain's three no-cost, and Dingell's seven no-cost, and we should accept these 16 points. Then we can begin to argue about the real impact of the cost of the rest of them.
Page 52 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 My point is, these are airline numbers. They are not our numbers. They are not somebody else's numbers. So, I am very encouraged that there are 16 different provisions here that, according to the airlines, have no cost attached to them.
It is a good starting point. So, I am very hopeful. I believe we are going to proceed. I believe your testimony today has been very, very helpful and I thank you for it.
Mr. DUNCAN. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Oberstar.
Mr. OBERSTAR. The testimony the panel has given is very powerful, very compelling, and very instructive of what airlines need to do to improve their service to the public; indicative of many other conditions across the Country that have prompted this legislation after many years of restraint on the subject.
I think the problem has come to a boiling point. Perhaps the tragedy of Northwest at Detroit was a trigger. There are also other situations, such as the unaccompanied minor problem that we have attempted to deal with in the past.
Ms. Rourke, has any progress been made on your case? Has the case been resolved either through court or by airline initiatives?
Ms. ROURKE. The case itself settled at the 11th hour when the jury was seated. I do want to point out that the main point Northwest fought against and the main point I stood firmly for was they wanted a complete across-the-board confidentiality agreement.
As we all know, we know why they wanted that. They did not want me to appear here or appear in the media and let the rest of the world know what kind of situations that have allowed these children to be put into.
I stood my ground. Thank God I won. I did win that. They did settle. I did agree to a confidentiality agreement as far as the terms of settlement, but I did not settle for the confidentiality agreement for the facts of this case. That is a part of the reason why I am here.
Page 53 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Mr. OBERSTAR. Did any part of your settlement impose a requirement on the carrier to improve its unaccompanied minor practice and policy?
Ms. ROURKE. Well, this happened in their main hub which was Minneapolis-St. Paul. The media, of course, there took a great interest in it. It is my view that the changes that were made in their Unaccompanied Minor Program there, which were changing their little unaccompanied minor room to a miniature Disneyland wherefore the benefit of the public, not for the benefit of the children.
Beyond that, their procedure and policy at the time of the incident with my child was never to put to unrelated children in the same room. So, when they told me he would be in a room with one or two other children, that was completely against their procedure to begin with.
Then they put him in with this other person, which again went against their own procedures. So, no they have not changed anything, sir.
Mr. OBERSTAR. You did not take that a step further in your settlement to force the carrier.
Ms. ROURKE. No. I fought for it, but it did not work.
Mr. OBERSTAR. You argued for it, but were not able to achieve that settlement.
Ms. ROURKE. That is right.
Mr. OBERSTAR. Do you think there should be something done through legislation?
Ms. ROURKE. My final goal, sir is to have that in legislation, yes. This is my one step towards that end. I truly plan on finishing out this journey. Yes, I do.
Mr. OBERSTAR. I think the most disturbing aspect was the carrier just provided you no information; just stonewalled you on this.
Page 54 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Ms. ROURKE. No.
Mr. OBERSTAR. And the Department and the court as well. When they do things like that they, in effect, bring on regulatory action.
Ms. ROURKE. Exactly.
Mr. OBERSTAR. Let us hope that your ordeal, your son's ordeal, will come to some fruition for others who will never have to have that happen again.
Ms. ROURKE. Thank you.
Mr. OBERSTAR. Mr. Pearlman, I read with great interest your statement. I wonder whether during the time of confinement on the runway in St. Louis, did the flight crew handle it correctly? Did they provide you information? Did they keep you updated; not you, but all passengers on the flight?
Mr. PEARLMAN. I did not think so. I thought that they should have been able to explain to passengers what the situation was. There was, in reality, a sick-out going on. Employees were not showing up for work.
I am quite sure they must have known that, but for whatever reason they were not divulging that to any passengers. They were just basically saying it is out of our control. There are no gates. We will get you off as soon as we can.
Mr. OBERSTAR. Now, you are a patent attorney. If one of your clients asked you for information, asked you where the claim is, and you responded the same way, what would happen to your relationship with your client?
Mr. PEARLMAN. I am sure I would lose my client very quickly.
Mr. OBERSTAR. What do you recommend we do, through legislation, to protect others from that kind of circumstance?
Mr. PEARLMAN. I really think that part of this legislation really does address it by compelling the airlines to give a truthful explanation of what is going on.
Page 55 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 In this case, maybe they did not know exactly what the terms of the sick-out were. It was an unofficial work stoppage.
All they had to tell passengers was that many flight attendants did not show up for work and it was causing disruption.
That they were doing everything possible to try to reroute passengers on another airline that was not having a work disruption.
That would have been enough. I think the problem was not so much that I was inconvenienced. What really bothered me was that I felt that I was not being told the facts, and that I did not have any control of the situation.
Mr. OBERSTAR. I think that is the most frustrating part of airline passenger problems with carriers. That they feel like mushrooms raised in the dark and fed
Mr. PEARLMAN. Exactly.
Mr. OBERSTAR. Blank. People deserve to be treated better. Secondly, that there does not appear to be a plan. That they are just sort of making it up as they go along. Was that your feeling? Is that the feeling of all of the witnesses.
[Chorus of ayes.]
Mr. OBERSTAR. Ms. Plecas, did Northwest compensate you for your experience, perhaps ordeal is a better word, at Detroit?
Ms. PLECAS. Yes. Northwest did. I do not know if there was a time limit on how long you had to be out on the tarmac to get compensated, but within less than 30 days I did receive a free airline ticket. That was after the class action suit had been filed against Northwest Airlines. I think Northwest was hoping that we would consider that compensation for the inconvenience.
Mr. OBERSTAR. What has happened with the class action suit?
Page 56 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Ms. PLECAS. At this point, I do not know that anything new is happening with the class action suit. I do not know that people are necessarily interested in the class action suit. It is not about money.
It is the same thing that Ms. Rourke said. This is not an issue about money. This is about the airlines not understanding that they have a responsibility to their passengers to have a plan in action.
Detroit is not a stranger to snow. You can look at the Chicago weather. The next day you can anticipate that is what will hit Detroit. Their major hub is Minneapolis. They have snow in Minneapolis.
There should have been a plan to deal with the snow. Chicago adequately dealt with it. Yet, when you came to Detroit, there was no plan.
In trying to keep up with the newspaper articles and what not, it appears that the lack of adequate snow removal was a direct result of Northwest not moving empty planes out of the way for the snow removal people to get in there.
It is also my understanding that they were offered gates that were available through other airlines, but chose not to pay a rental fee. They felt it was easier to just wait until something happened. But no one had a plan for the something.
Mr. OBERSTAR. That is the most disturbing part of it. There was not a plan. We used to have a little cartoon on the refrigerator that our children put up. Kids talking about parents saying that maybe the reason they did not tell us about plan is that there was not a plan.
I think that is the case here. Now, Northwest has since created a President for Detroit Operations and is developing a plan. Have you been made aware of any of this? Has the airline provided you with information about this?
Ms. PLECAS. No, they have not.
Page 57 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Mr. OBERSTAR. I watched it on television. Maybe I am not the person to say this, but they certainly do not seem to select people with much personality to do their PR work.
I am just really tired of feeling like it was my fault that I was on the tarmac for 7 hours, could not hold my bladder, and was agitated. That somehow they do not feel any culpability for things.
That it is just, when you get on the airlines, you give up your rights. I understand I do give up my right to fly the plane. I do give up my right to be drunk and disorderly, but I did not know I gave up my right to use the lavatory.
Mr. OBERSTAR. I hope all of the carriers are listening. It is a very ernest, thoughtful, and sensitive statement. It sums up how passengers feel. They should be treated better. There was a time when our railroad passenger service treated people the same way.
Rail passenger service went the way of the great Ork, out of existence, until just very recently in transportation history. Aviation is a $600 billion sector of our national economy.
The carriers have to pay much more careful attention to people like you who are really asking only for respect and respectful treatment.
One of the arguments that a carrier makes is that their snow plow crews could not get to the airport because the City had not plowed the residential streets. I checked with the airport authority in Detroit, and 11 of their 12 snow plow operators did make it to the airport.
My question for Northwest was, why did you not have a plan that included assigning a 4-wheel drive vehicle to each of your snow plow operators, or a snowmobile, or a Hum-V, or a sled dog even, something to get you in when, as you say, snow does happen.
Page 58 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Ms. PLECAS. What was interesting was when I finally did get to my car that evening, I went to a Big Boy Restaurant to use the bathroom facilities and to get something to eat. There were Northwest personnel in the restaurant. They said, were you one of the people that has been stuck out there?
I said, yes, I was out there for 7 hours. That the airline kept saying that they did not have adequate personnel to handle the situation. Two of the people held up their beepers. They said, you know what, we are all on a beeper.
In the past 48 hours, we have not been contacted by the airline to help out with anything. We are here. We are in a hotel. We would have been willing to come and do whatever we could do. We have not been contacted by the airline to do anything.
Mr. OBERSTAR. One question for Ms. Shank. That is, do you think we should clarify code sharing arrangements to make sure that one airline takes responsibility for problems that arise?
Ms. SHANK. Absolutely. I have been back and forth between these airlines, since we purchased our tickets through Continental. But my major problem is not with them, it is with Virgin Atlantic.
Mr. OBERSTAR. Did you know that you were going to be flying on a Virgin Atlantic?
Ms. SHANK. I did know that. I did know that ahead of time. I did not know a lot about Virgin Atlantic. We had what our travel agency had told us, that they were the better airline, better than British Air. So, we were going on our travel agent's recommendation, which is all I had. I had not ever been out of the Country.
The whole problem with this is Virgin Atlantic has washed their hands of it. They tell me you call Continental. When I call Continental, they say well we only have what Virgin Atlantic has to tell us and they are telling us a different story. They are telling us it did not happen.
Page 59 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Mr. OBERSTAR. When you purchased that ticket, did you expect Continental to back you up?
Ms. SHANK. Yes, indeed. I most certainly did. I paid them my money. They sub-contracted Virgin Atlantic, not me. I expect Continental to resolve it. If Virgin Atlantic is not going to tell the truth to Continental, and that is what Continental is telling me until as of last Friday, they want to sweep it under the rug and pretend it did not happen.
Mr. OBERSTAR. I think we could take the names out and substitute other names for those two carriers and you would have the same situation. I think that is what the legislation is attempting to address.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Thank you very much, all of the members of the panel.
Mr. DUNCAN. Thank you very much, Mr. Oberstar. Dr. Ehlers.
Mr. EHLERS. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Most of the questions I have will be for the airlines when we have a later hearing on that. I will just make a few comments.
First of all, to the members of the panel, it is probably no surprise to you to understand that almost everyone on this panel and everyone in the Congress are very experienced flyers.
So, what you are reciting is something that most of us have not experienced ourselves. Although, I have never been held on a plane for 9 hours, but I have been held on a plane for 3 hours.
I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from this. I hope the airlines learn them. I think a major problem is with the attitude of the airline's personnel, and training the personnel to deal with situations like this.
Page 60 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 I have been on flights which have had difficulties, such as you had. They have been handled absolutely beautifully by the captain, the first officer, and the flight attendants.
I have also been on flights where the employees actually aggravated the situation by their behavior, the way they responded, and the way they reacted.
I think, Mr. Chairman, also we have to check into some of these things. For example, informing passengers on a plane sitting on U.S. soil, still attached to an airport, and claiming that is British soil. That is simply absurd and is not legally accurate. There is some argument, once they are in the air that they are because airplanes operate, to a certain extent, under the law of the sea where the captain is in charge and the ship belongs to the soil of the country that chartered it.
Certainly not when you are sitting at an airport attached to the terminal. That is typical of poor employee training and the lack of ability to deal with the public. So, I think there are a host of issues here we have to address.
I do want to caution, Mr. Chairman, against making the problem worse by passing legislation that will actually complicate the situation and make the airlines take action that will in fact make the situation worse by having them so afraid of violating the law, that they will do other things that are even more inconvenient to the passengers.
So, we do not want to use a knee-jerk reaction here and somebody say, oh, this awful. We have to regulate the airlines. We have to come up with something that in fact does improve the situation, but is meaningful.
Something that might be meaningful would be to require better training for airline employees, which is not, to my knowledge, mentioned in any of the bills that have out. It is a lot easier to say thou shalt not do such and such, but that always has ramifications.
So, Mr. Chairman, I urge this panel to look at the legislation very carefully. Look at the problem very carefully. Make sure whatever solutions we come up with actually will solve the problems and make the situation better.
Page 61 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Thank you very much.
Mr. DUNCAN. Well, thank you very much Dr. Ehlers.
Certainly, you are correct. We will try our best to not over-regulate, but simply to do something about the more egregious situations if we possibly can. Mr. DeFazio.
Mr. EHLERS. Mr. Chairman, I have just one comment. One thing I feel very, very strongly about and that is that airline personnel must tell the truth, unless for some reason it might endanger the passengers and cause a panic.
I have been absolutely livid about airline personnel lying to me, particularly the captain of the airline. I am putting my life in his or her hands. When they decide to lie to me, I feel very uncomfortable about putting my life in their hands.
I think that is an absolute outrage. I can give numerous examples, as most of us who have traveled frequently can, where the staff of the airline was dishonest with the passengers for no good reason. That, we clearly have to address.
Thank you very much.
Mr. DUNCAN. Thank you. Mr. DeFazio.
Mr. DEFAZIO. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Chairman, I regret I was not able to be here for the entire testimony. I had to go to another hearing. I appreciate these people traveling here, risking another airline incident, and telling us their stories; some extraordinarily difficult, in the case of Ms. Rourke.
I just have one simple question. It goes to something in the introductory statements and materials in which the Department of Transportation says they only receive 5,000 or 6,000 complaints a year.
In the legislation I drafted more than a decade ago, I was going to require that every ticket and ticket envelope have a 1-800 number to the Department of Transportation on it so people would know where to complain.
Page 62 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 The Department of Transportation was apoplectic at the idea and said they would be inundated with complaints. So, I have always felt that the reason they do not get too many complaints is because no one actually knows to whom and how to complain.
I see some heads nodding. I just wanted to ask the witnesses if they were given easy access to the Department of Transportation and some help there. I see everyone shaking their head.
Ms. SHANK. I spent 2 days and hundreds of dollars in phone calls trying to find out, calling every civil rights agency, every Government agency, being put on hold to finally find out the buck stops at the Department of Transportation; hundreds of dollars and days of my time.
Mr. DEFAZIO. Even if it was not a toll-free number, you would have been happy to have it just printed on the ticket jacket.
Ms. SHANK. You got it, yes.
Mr. DEFAZIO. And other people had a similar experience trying to figure out where to start. Well, thank you. I think you have made the case.
Ms. Plecas, just on yours, I had not heard this about the incident that actually other concourses were available. Are we still in the rumor stage there or is that accurate?
Ms. PLECAS. No. I believe that has been verified by the attorneys, that there were other gates that were available and were offered by other airlines on a rental basis to Northwest Airlines and they chose not to avail themselves of that.
Mr. DEFAZIO. That is absolutely extraordinary.
Ms. PLECAS. That is my understanding from the attorneys.
Ms. SHANK. I have heard that, too.
Mr. DEFAZIO. Well, that is certainly something that I will be asking them to verify at the Department of Transportation. It is just amazing.
Page 63 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Just in closing, Mr. Chairman, it sort of reminds meI saw one of my favorite bumper stickers years ago before the court decision broke up AT&T. What I saw going down the street once was, ''Ma Bell, we do not care. We do not have to.''
I fear that some of the airlines have gotten to that same point. I think we do need to impose some minimum constraints on the airlines to make certain that people are treated as we would treat our fellow citizens, and as other businesses would treat their customers.
I thank you, again, all for being here today. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. DUNCAN. Well, Thank you very much. Ms. Johnson.
Ms. JOHNSON. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I want to thank the witnesses for coming forth and explaining to us actually why we need the legislation. Most of my questions will be for the airlines. So, thank you.
Mr. DUNCAN. Thank you very much. Ms. Norton.
Ms. NORTON. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I think the testimony of these witnesses has spoken for itself. It will be important to hear the other side of the story. I must say though that some of the experiences we have heard today are extreme versions of what many members of the public have experienced.
I was pleased that the Chairman said that his legislation got the attention at the top of these airlines. So, it may be that, if nothing else happens, we have started a process that can eliminate these kinds of abuses.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. DUNCAN. Thank you very much. Mr. Lampson.
Mr. LAMPSON. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Very quickly, I wanted to thank all of you for your testimony; particularly, Ms. Rourke for what you were able to tell us about your children.
Page 64 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 As the Chairman of the Caucus for Missing and Exploited Children, we are very concerned about how airlines treat all children who board, particularly knowing their identity; making sure that those children are supposed be where they are supposed to be.
We will be talking in some detail with the airlines when they come next week. We thank you for taking the time to come here and share with us.
Ms. ROURKE. Thank you.
Mr. LAMPSON. If you have any suggestions along the way to help us, we would be most appreciative of that.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. DUNCAN. Thank you very much. Mr. Lipinski.
Mr. LIPINSKI. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I want to thank the members of the panel for their extremely powerful testimony this morning. It, once again, demonstrates that an elite group of individuals, companies can be extremely intolerant to people who are really their own customers. I believe that the testimony that you have given us this morning moves that elite organization of air carriers closer to what they dread more than anything else.
That is re-regulation of the aviation industry. Ms. Shank, I have checked with Congressman Oberstar, who is the world's greatest authority on all airline matters.
He tells me that even though you were in a Virgin Atlantic airplane, as long as it was at Dulles, you were under United States of America regulations. No matter what they told you on the plane, he is never wrong when it comes to aviation matters.
Ms. SHANK. We have been told by several attorneys that should we try to sue them, that we would have to go to England to try this case. Certainly, we cannot do that.
Mr. LAMPSON. Well, I do not know why you would have to sue them. I would think that you would sue Continental. Even if you did have to sue them, I do not think that you would have to go to England to do that.
Page 65 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 I am not an attorney, but we have a very excellent one to my left over here. Ms. Norton, I am sure, she might want to give you a little advice on that right now. Ms. Norton.
Ms. NORTON. They do business in this Country. They can be served in this Country. I do not think you would have to go to England in order to sue them.
Ms. SHANK. What the attorney said to us was that there was a law passed in the Supreme Court in 1998 that pretty much takes my right away to sue an airline, unless they have done bodily injury to me.
Now, I was sick for 2 days. It passed. They did not leave me any lasting bodily injury. They have left me with quite an experience that I will never forget. They certainly have left me with some other types of injury, but not personal injury.
If we need to change something, we need to look at changing this legislation, this law that was passed in 1998 that says we cannot sue unless they have cut off our leg or you know. I do not know what that is.
Ms. NORTON. My basis was negligence.
Mr. LAMPSON. Reclaiming my time because we have some votes coming up. I am not familiar with that and neither is the Chairman, but we will certainly look into that for you.
With that, Mr. Chairman, I thank you for my time.
Mr. DUNCAN. Well, thank you very much.
I would have liked to have asked a couple of questions, but we have got another vote. Let me just say that aviation is really one of the very few fields that this nation leads the world in.
I do think that the airlines, overall, do a very good job, a very miraculous job in many ways. We want to do as Dr. Ehlers said, make sure that we do not over-regulate and make things worse. Saying that though, we still have a duty, a responsibility to try our very best to make sure that things such have happened to each of you do not happen again.
Page 66 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Certainly, we are going to try to do that. Ms. Rourke certainly has told the worst situation here to have her 6- year-old son molested. That is a terrible thing.
Ms. Shank, as I said earlier, I do not think there was any excuse for Virgin Atlantic holding you on that plane all of that time when it was attached to the gate.
In fairness, I have been requested to place in the record, and we will do that, a letter to Mr. Branson from a passenger, Mike Musselwhite, who was in first class, but who wrote him a letter complimenting Virgin Atlantic on the treatment of the passengers in that situation.
That will be placed in the record, in fairness at this hearing today. I think that all of you have had to go through things that you should not have had to go through. As I said, we are going to try to do everything within reason.
These things are not as easy as they look from a distance. We are going to do everything we possibly can to make sure that these things do not happen again. With that, we will have to break for the vote. We will not hold you up any longer.
We will proceed with the second panel as soon as we return from this vote.
Mr. DUNCAN. The Aviation Subcommittee will come to order. I would ask for the second panel to come forward at this time.
On the second panel, we are very pleased and honored to have Mr. David Z. Plavin, who is President of Airports Council International-North America; Mr. Paul M. Ruden, Esquire, Acting Chief Operating Officer of the American Society of Travel Agents; and Mr. Kevin P. Mitchell, Chairman of the Business Travel Coalition.
Gentlemen, we are honored and pleased to have you, as I said. We will proceed in the agenda order. Mr. Plavin, we will start with you. Then you may proceed with your statements.
Page 67 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 TESTIMONY OF DAVID Z. PLAVIN, PRESIDENT, AIRPORTS COUNCIL INTERNATIONAL-NORTH AMERICA; PAUL M. RUDEN, ESQUIRE, ACTING CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER, AMERICAN SOCIETY OF TRAVEL AGENTS, INC.; AND KEVIN P. MITCHELL, CHAIRMAN, BUSINESS TRAVEL COALITION
Mr. PLAVIN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I have a prepared statement, if I may submit it for the record and I will be brief.
Mr. DUNCAN. Yes. Your full statement will be placed in the record.
Mr. PLAVIN. Thank you. I am pleased to have been invited here today to talk about what is really an immensely complicated business.
It is really important that we recognize that not only in the circumstances that we heard this morning, but in operations on a day-to-day basis, the logistics of providing service are really immensely difficult.
They are complicated by all of the things we heard about, the fact that there are many players: air traffic control, airlines, airports, weather, mechanical problems, and all of the things that can go wrong.
What is interesting to me is the enthusiastic response that Chairman Shuster has gotten on his bill. This clearly makes the point that he has touched a raw nerve with people across the Country. Airport operators typically are in a position where they receive many of the complaints that come from frustrated passengers who come to the airports. In many ways, that is difficult because the airports are not authorized to, responsible for, charged with, equipped to respond to many of the issues and problems that are presented.
So, we have a pretty good idea why the customer is so angry. It is not just for the kind of special situations we heard about this morning, but on an on-going basis.
Page 68 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 We are not by any means proposing wholesale re-regulation of the airlines. We do not think that is useful. We do not think it is productive. We do think that the accountability that was discussed by Chairman Shuster this morning is a principle that we believe in, that we advocate, and that we believe we can be responsible for.
Passengers have the right to know and have confidence that, when they purchase a ticket, they are entitled to a reasonable experience. That the flight is flown within the time frames that the airline advertises.
That there are many different circumstances that will intervene that we need to take into account. The passenger knows that. Obviously there are dislocating circumstances which cannot be avoided.
When such circumstances as these occur, there needs to be not only a way to deal with them, not only a plan, but also the proper implementation of the plan.
I think when many of the things we are describing here--including statements that are often untrue--when those things take place, it is very often the case that the plans of the airlines have gone array because they have not been executed properly.
I am not going to take the time to outline all of the ways that people complain about service. I do not have enough time and you all know them anyway. But there are some things that airports do, themselves, that go above and beyond the responsibility that they have to provide amenities to passengers in order to make travel a more acceptable experience.
In addition to the considerable attention that they devote to the safe operating conditions and the clearing of the airport environment, members routinely implement programs to take care of passengers that are affected by the weather.
They recognize that travelers have needs before, during, and after their flight. While it is often true that carriers routinely refuse to support projects to improve travelers' ability to efficiently get to and from airports, or projects to improve baggage areas to make them more modern and customer friendly. That is because, typically, they do not acknowledge responsibility for the customers before they get on the plane or after they leave the plane.
Page 69 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Chicago O'Hare has Passenger Assistance Programs. The New York/New Jersey Port Authority has hundreds of customer service representatives hired to work in the areas of terminals where there are no airline personnel.
Many airport staff speak more than one language. They are dispatched to deal with customer issues. They actively seek out travelers who look confused or in need of help. Mr. Chairman, we believe that this effort to provide greater protection to air passengers is an important step.
I am not sure that all of the details are details that we would agree with. I think that these are clearly, issues that many of us have been trying to deal with for a long time. The biggest issue, as far as we are concerned, is that we need to invest in capacity.
One of the things that comes up over and over again is that we do not have the capacity to deal with disruptions in the system. That is true both on the air traffic control side and on the airport side.
We really feel very strongly that if we were operating in a more commodious environment, less pushed to the end by the kinds of demands on the system, many of the kinds of dislocations that we have been experiencing would not happen.
In summary, we are not suggesting re-regulation. We are suggesting the need for accountability. We think that only happens when you have competition, real competition. We do not have real competition in too many major markets. We believe that this bill and the other legislation that the Committee is putting forward will make major contributions to making that competitive environment more real. We thank you for your efforts on our behalf.
Mr. DUNCAN. Thank you very much, Mr. Plavin.
I think you are exactly right. Real competition is the key to a good quality of service at a lower cost. Competition is the best way to improve service, while keeping costs low. Mr. Ruden.
Page 70 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Mr. RUDEN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I speak today not only on behalf of the American Society of Travel Agents, which is the world's largest travel agent professional association, but also the Coalition for Travel Industry Parity, which is a group of 23 travel agency joint marketing organizations.
Between ASTA and CTIP, we represent the vast, vast majority of all travel agencies in the United States. I do not want to go over ground that has already been covered by the Committee this morning, I am going to adlib just a little bit. I do want to say to this Subcommittee that the testimony you heard here today, while it does represent some extreme cases, is the tip of an iceberg that is large enough to sink an entire fleet of Titanics.
How much does it cost to provide basic courtesy and respect? How much does it cost to be truthful? The argument about costs and those sorts of defensive denial responses to this legislation and to these issues is simply, totally off the mark.
Most Americans do understand that flight delays, cancellations, lost bags, and things of that sort occur from time-to-time in a very complicated system. What they are seeking, and what they are so angry about coast-to-coast, and have been for years, is their perception, which is accurate, that a good deal of the time, not always, but a good deal of the time they are not told the truth. They are not given information in a timely way. They are not treated with basic courtesy and respect.
Last summer ASTA issued its own bill of rights, a nine point program, very similar in nature to the bill that Representative Shuster, Representative DeFazio, and the others have put in this year.
It contains fundamental principles such as the right to timely information about flight delays and cancellations, truthful information, reasonable in-flight medical assistance, and so forth.
The Virgin Atlantic case that we heard about, I want to suggest to you, may be explainable not by some issue having to do with what country the folks were in when they got on the airplane, but something else that is contained in some of this legislation.
Page 71 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Whatever else you do to adjust the scheme of laws that the airlines are subject to, we would urge you to fix the preemption problem. I believe those lawyers are telling this lady who sat here that she may not have a lawsuit against the airline because the Federal preemption provision in the Federal Aviation Act prevents the enforcement of state laws relating to routes, rates, and services of airlines that are certificated by the Government.
The preemption provision was never intended to prevent consumers from getting redress under basic state laws having to do with deception, torts, and things of that sort, breach of contract, and the like.
Our full testimony addresses this at great length. I believe that is the issue that is involved there. I also want to say to you, while I have a brief moment, something about this notion of re-regulation that the airlines continue every year to recite as an obstacle to the Congress addressing the kinds of customer service issues that are being talked about today.
Regulation was all about prices, what the airlines could charge, and where they could go. Deregulation freed the airlines from both State and Federal control of pricing, route entry, and exit issues.
It was never intended to lead to the situation we have now where the competitive market simply is failing, by every account, to discipline the behavior of the airlines. There is a related economic question here.
All of this ties back together because we do not want to see the Government come back into full scale regulation of the industry either. That is not going to work and not going to solve these problems.
What the airlines have in place now, not a conspiracy necessarily, but a typical copycat campaign that is going to interfere with the rights of consumers to have access to complete travel information on their choices and options, by defeating the ability of the travel agency distribution system and its customers, 80 percent of the traveling public, to communicate with each other.
Page 72 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 These issues are addressed in H.R. 1030, which was introduced a few days ago by Representative Forbes. I hope the Subcommittee, as it is going through this very complex set of issues having to do with consumer rights, the issues of fairness, and disclosure will seriously look at those issues as well.
If the consumer does not have the ability to make good choices, and he only has that if he has full information, then the disciplining force of the marketplace will never come to bear on the airlines, and nothing else that we do, with respect to predation or any of these other issues is going to solve the problem.
Thank you very much.
Mr. COOKSEY. [Presiding] Thank you, Mr. Ruden.
Mr. Mitchell, you are from the Business Travel Coalition.
Mr. MITCHELL. Good morning and thank you for holding this critically important hearing today. The Business Travel Coalition represents the 22,000 individual business travelers of the Commercial Travelers Association, as well as many large corporations such as Black and Decker, Diameler Chrysler, and Proctor and Gamble.
BTC takes no funding, indirectly or directly, from any airline. We are funded by the corporations that we represent. Over the past year, several well-publicized incidents have dramatically highlighted the need for the Nation's airlines to improve their approaches to customer service and passenger rights.
Indeed, some of the worst incidents were not made public until today at this hearing. The failure of the industry to address a rising tide of consumer complaints has lead to a crisis of confidence in airline management, and to the introduction of passenger bill of rights legislation in both the House and the Senate.
Many believe this current crisis has been deepened by airlines' abstinent refusal to acknowledge the overall concerns of Government leaders. Astonishingly, I have been told that a few airlines still believe this Subcommittee does not possess the resolve to move passenger rights legislation forward. Most airlines, however, seem to realize that they can ignore this Subcommittee's concerns, only at their own peril.
Page 73 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 In the final analysis, Mr. Chairman, there appears to be just a few approaches to the consumer rights problems that are of sufficient magnitude as to be of concern to this Subcommittee.
However, in our view, only one approach would fully leverage the authority of this Subcommittee, solve the problems quickly, and avoid potentially damaging side affects.
The first approach would be to increase competition levels. It is important to note that most of the passenger rights issues would not be in evidence today, were the industry substantially more competitive.
Unfortunately, airline competition levels cannot be boosted quickly enough to solve problems in a timely manner. BTC does not support waiting. The second approach would be to enact legislation.
Undoubtedly, this Subcommittee has the right and obligation to take action when airline consumers' basic rights are at risk; especially when neither the marketplace or the industry seems to be able to resolve the problems. Nevertheless, current proposed passenger rights legislation represents Government intervention in the marketplace. We believe such a public policy solution could increase business travel costs, stifle innovation, and raise safety issues.
BTC does not support a legislative solution at this time. The third approach would be to demand comprehensive industry-sponsored reforms. Like other industries that have faced the ominous threat of Government intervention, airlines should view this legislation as a major warning and move decisively to address your concerns.
As an alternative to legislation, BTC proposes that this Subcommittee again demand a substantial package of airline industry design reforms. BTC recommends Congress leverage its authority and the threat of legislation with the airlines to encourage them to the negotiating table.
Page 74 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Industry-proposed reforms could include, but not be necessarily limited to, detailing immediate policy options in response to the most serious issues that the proposed legislation seeks to address.
Announcing a formally structured intra-airline function to identify consumer protection best practices, and finally, committing to a process for industry self-policing and reporting of consumer protection practices.
Mr. Chairman, industry self-reform is the least onerous, potentially highest yield solution. Clearly, some of my colleagues in this competition debate hold an alternative view that the airlines cannot be trusted. That indeed this industry, just last fall, flaunted the fact that it thought it had certain Congressional leaders in its pocket.
Therefore it could thumb its nose at this and other Subcommittee's concerns. However, my response is to give the airlines one last opportunity to re-think their positions. If airlines equivocate, this Subcommittee should move legislation forward with God speed.
Responsibility for any unintended consequences resulting from legislation would then fall only with the airlines. Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to present a customer's perspective on these very serious issues before you today.
Mr. COOKSEY. Thank you, Mr. Mitchell. Mr. Lipinski.
Mr. LIPINSKI. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Mitchell, you state in your testimony that assessing financial penalties with respect to airline operations and decisions could lead to a reduced safety margin. Could you please explain how you came to that conclusion?
Mr. MITCHELL. Yes, Congressman. The concern that I have is that any time you commingle financial incentives or disincentives with safety-related processes and systems, not necessarily immediately, but over time, those can lad to poor judgments.
Page 75 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 One example possibly could be the Air Florida Crash where the pilots did not return after 40 or 50 minutes on the tarmac to the de-icing station. You do not want to incentive something that is safety-related. That is my point.
Mr. LIPINSKI. It just seems to me that, that would speak well then for us re-regulating or regulating more, certainly in the area of safety. I mean, it sounds to me like you are telling me that it might cost more money and there is more competition today.
So, it is tougher for an airline to make that profit. That they are going escape that safety. It seems to me we have an obligation then to rush in and try to fill this breach with some new legislation.
Mr. MITCHELL. Well, I am not a safety expert, but I do know that we finished 1998 with zero fatalities. The industry has a remarkable record for safety. I am not suggesting that there is a breach to be filled.
I am simply suggesting that human nature, financial incentives, and the way this would follow through in different iterations over the years, could lead to unintended ramifications with regard to safety.
Mr. LIPINSKI. I agree with you. We have an excellent safety record here. I think airlines do an outstanding job, at least the well-established airlines, do an outstanding job with regard to safety.
I do have my concerns in regards to some airlines that I will say have not been around for a long period of time or have not been somewhat financially successful. I am concerned about their safety.
I have often thought of trying to do something about the regulation in the area of safety. If I do it to the smaller ones, the ones that do not have as much longevity, in reality I have to do it to all of them. I cannot do it just to one segment of the aviation industry.
Page 76 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 You also talked about a fix, instead of a legislative fix in regard to the reforms we need, that there should be an industry fix. We are having this hearing today.
As Congressman DeFazio mentioned in conversations that I have had with Congressman Oberstar, they have tried to move this legislation along for a long time.
I know that both of them have talked to the leaders of various airlines over the course of the years with regard to the industry putting in these reforms. I think we have reached the point where it does not seem to me that the industry is ever going to put the reforms in on their own.
That we have responsibility to do it legislatively. I would like to hear from you though. What is your rationale for saying that we should give them one more opportunity? Why do you think they would do this on their own, now, finally?
Mr. MITCHELL. Congressman, in April of 1997, we held our first Airline Competition Summit here in Washington, D.C., to bring to light a lot of the barriers to competition in the industry.
At that point in time, ridicule is probably too strong a work, but people looked askance at the idea that legislation would ever move forward. That the Federal Government will not ever take these issues seriously.
Today, what we have are various bills, competition and consumer rights bills. We have got two DOJ investigations underway. We have got the DOT competition guidelines out there, the Inspector General of the DOT looking into matters. We have got the DOJ being very concerned about industry consolidation. The airlines misgauged and miscalculated, in terms of where this debate was going to go.
At this point in time, it is my judgment that they have lost all control over the outcome of this debate. I think that this Subcommittee and the Senate Committee has a very unusual opportunity to come down hard on the airlines.
Page 77 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 My sense that they are scared to death right now that this legislation is going to go forward. So, I think the Subcommittee has an opportunity to force the airlines to the table to put in reforms immediately. Some of them should be put into place tomorrow, from what I heard earlier today.
Mr. LIPINSKI. What stops them from putting those reforms in right now?
Mr. MITCHELL. Absolutely nothing. What has caused the issue has been an arrogance among several of the major carriers. That is why this Subcommittee's work is so important. You have got the airlines to the point now where you can bring them to the table.
My only issue is if we can all get to the same end result, without legislation, then to me that seems to be the best course.
Mr. LIPINSKI. Well, it seems to me that they have a window of opportunity between the time this bill passes the House, and the Senate bill passes the Senate, and we go to Conference, and it is signed into law. If they are indeed to the point that you think that they are, they certainly do have some time to implement these reforms by their own volition. We will see.
Do you think that the proposed competition guidelines from the Department of Transportation are going to contribute to improving the situation for passengers?
Mr. MITCHELL. Yes, I do. The guidelines are, in my view, the single most important step that the whole of Government can take to get new entry into the pipeline, to get new competition, especially in these fortress hubs.
These guidelines, even in their proposed state, are renewing investor interest in the low fair segment of the industry. I believe they are going to have a very, very important impact.
Page 78 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 In fact, one of the more important principles of deregulation is that of contestability. We have a chance of bringing that to life with this bill, with this policy, just to get new entrants as we have seen with Pro Air into Detroit.
It has had a dramatic impact on the Detroit market. They have saved $180 million for Detroit area consumers in 1998 alone. You have got things like Saturday night stay requirements. They are not in existence where Pro Air competes with Northwest Airlines.
Where Northwest charges a $75 change fee when you want to change your ticket, it is $25 where it competes with Pro Air to match Pro Air.
So, competition can solve so many of these problems. The Department of Transportation guidelines are an essential ingredient as we go forward into the next decade of deregulation.
Mr. LIPINSKI. Mr. Chairman, thank you very much. Mr. Mitchell, thank you. I have to step out for a meeting. If you are still here when I return, I have a few more questions.
Mr. COOKSEY. Thank you, Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Ruden, and Mr. Plavin.
I, too, share your concern about some of the incidents that occurred. I happen to fly Northwest Airlines quite a bit because I can make my weekly trip back home in a shorter period of time.
I, too, had some problems last year. It was in the period just prior to the strike. I was inconvenienced a couple of times; really about five times. Yet, I did the Market Competition Act. I switched airlines.
Just when I came back up this week, I had a similar experience. This time, it was because of weather. We were caught in the midst of some tornados. They rushed us off the plane before we ever took off, fortunately.
Page 79 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Yet, weather does play a factor in some of these decisions. I must say that I am a pilot and a physician. I did take the time to check on the weather that existed in Detroit when these incidents occurred.
They did really have a serious problem. They had a total white-out. It is my understanding that they were unable to even see the airplanes. I am from the South. I am not accustomed to this type of white-out, but I know that it occurs.
It is also my understanding that the snow drifts were so high that they were above the level of the engines and they could not move the planes because of the snow drift. Then I think back to that time in the 1980s when the Air Florida flight did take off.
I can think of the times that I know our previous Secretary of Commerce took off or flew into an area in the Balkans; probably not under good conditions, using an NDB approach.
When you look at the accidents that have occurred in those circumstances, then look at that in the fact that we had zero accidents last year. So, three have been times that we are all going to be inconvenienced by the airlines.
We still have a good safety record. I think that is important. I think the incident with the child was very unfortunate. Something needs to be done to address that type problem. Now, let me let you in on a big secret, I do not think it is, you are basically coming to us and asking Congress to write some regulations, to write some laws that would solve all of these problems.
I wish I could tell you that this is the seat of all wisdom. Everyone here is gray, wise, and can anticipate every problem.
I know that a lot of the members of Congress were elected probably because of the people. Fifty percent of the reason they were elected to Congress was because of the people that supported them. About 50 percent was luck.
Page 80 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 The rest of it was brains. Well, I do not think that we can come up with a piece of legislation that will anticipate all of these problems because they are going to be recurring problems.
I still trust the market forces to address these problems as existed in the Detroit situation. So, do not expect us to come up with a perfect set of regulations. I can remember the days when we did have a regulated airline. There were not 600 million people flying.
There were more accidents. The politicians and the people in Government were calling too many of the shots. Things just did to work quite as well. Mr. Ruden, you look like you want to comment on my comments.
Mr. RUDEN. I just wanted to observe that I hope we do not draw the inference from the safety record of the industry last year, and the record number of complaints that occurred, that the more the airlines mistreat people, the safer they will fly.
If that were the only data, that would be a possible conclusion. I do not really see any connection here between safety and the provision of basic courtesy, respect, and truthfulness, which if that were taken care of, would probably solve the vast majority of the problems that people have.
I really do believe that our members are in constant contact with the public. They are the front line sales force for most of the air travel sold in this Country, and the only source of comparative information that is available.
We hear about these things just like you do. Most people are reasonable, if they are treated reasonably. We are talking about some very fundamental things. No one wants to put an airline in a position where they feel compelled to take off in unsafe conditions.
I do not believe that the FAA and the air traffic folks are ever going to let that kind of thing occur. I wish I could agree with Mr. Mitchell in the hope that after all of the attention that has finally been brought to bear on this, the airlines would somehow see this as something they really ought to take care of themselves.
Page 81 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 When we proposed a bill of rights last summer, they accused us of sour grapes because they cut commissions. This does not have anything to do with cutting commissions. Fixing these issues is not going to restore commissions.
What are they doing? As recently as this morning on CBS, they are still denying really that there is a problem here. I do not think that they have the message yet. So, our view is different, I think, a little than Mr. Mitchell's.
We agree on most things. In the long-run certainly competition has got to be the solution. In the short term Congress, it seems to us, now needs to act.
Mr. COOKSEY. You had a very detailed report. I am impressed with it; yours, too, Mr. Plavin's report. You had a lot of data. Let me propose a question. Mr. Mitchell represents the business travelers.
You represent the consumer vacation travelers. What percentage of the total airline tickets are paid by the people you represent, Mr. Plavin? What percentage are paid by the people you represent, Mr. Mitchell? I would be interested to see if your percentages are the same.
Mr. PLAVIN. I suspect you really need to address that question to Mr. Ruden on behalf of the travel agents. The airport people, unfortunately, do not have the ability to sell tickets, although a lot of us might like to.
Mr. COOKSEY. Mr. Ruden then. What percentage of the bills are paid for by business? What percentage of the airline tickets are paid by the people you represent?
Mr. Ruden. I believe that the generally accepted split is approximately 60 percent business and 40 percent pleasure travel.
Mr. COOKSEY. Would you agree with that, Mr. Mitchell?
Mr. MITCHELL. I would agree with that in so far as prior to the last couple of years with the run-up in business air fares. There is no accurate information out there, but it was 40/60 in the mid-1990s. I would suspect it is closer to 70 percent business revenue today.
Page 82 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Mr. RUDEN. That is very possible. I would not dispute that. The average ticket sold by travel agents, the price of it, actually went down last year, which indicates to us that the leisure market that they are tending toward, and even the business market they serve, they are actually delivering lower prices while the market for business travel is going up.
Mr. COOKSEY. It is also my perception that a part of the problem is the hub-to-hub flying. There is no question that certain airlines dominate certain hubs. This leads into a part of the problem.
I think that when we put in the GPS systems and we do more point-to-point flying, I think that will alleviate a part of the problem. There is one airline that does that quite successfully and has a very high passenger approval rating. When I lived in Texas, and I still am near Texas, and I fly the airline. I know they are a very happy airline and have a lot of happy people supposedly.
Again, that gets back to market forces. I do not look to this as the source of all wisdom for coming up with good regulation. Perhaps if we get a lot of good input, we can.
I have a colleague from the Aviation Committee my friend, Mr. Bass, who is also a pilot. He probably has some comments or questions.
Mr. BASS. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I apologize for being here late. I do not want to ask any questions that may be repeated. I am just curious to know if any of you have any perspective as to why Southwest Airlines, for example, has such a good record and some of the other ones have worse records?
Has that question been asked? Has anybody dealt with that issue yet?
Mr. COOKSEY. I think it was asked in the previous panel.
Mr. BASS. We are aware in our briefing papers here that Southwest has the lowest complaint rate. What do you think creates that?
Page 83 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Mr. RUDEN. I think I would be happy to try to address that. As it happens, I was counsel to Southwest Airlines when it first flew its early flights when I was in private practice many, many years ago. I am somewhat close to the business model that they use.
If you go back in the history and look at it carefully and follow it through, you will see that one thing Southwest did and continues to do is to make absolutely clear to the markets it serves the kind of service it is going to provide.
They have done this from day one. They explained very clearly to the public, here is what we do for you and here is what we do not do for you. So, if you want to pay the price that we offer you, do not expect any more than these things.
They spelled it out rather clearly and have continued to do that. I think their customers, therefore, by and large come to them with an expectation that is connected with the reality of what they are going to do.
The other airlines, on the other hand, promise you the experience of a lifetime, and in a significant percentage of the cases, produce nightmares for the passengers. That is why Southwest stands in such a unique position.
Mr. BASS. We may have a future hearing which we will hear from the airline companies. I am just curious to know if any of you three gentlemen have any perspective on the issue of airplane capacity and whether or not making seats smaller and tighter is really the fundamental problem here? If you had a 2 hour wait on the runway and you had plenty of room, that would be one thing. Do you have any perspective on that issue?
Mr. MITCHELL. David, you are bigger than I am. I have a lot of problems.
Mr. PLAVIN. I do not believe that, that is the fundamental problem here with passenger rights. I mean, every business person who flew with a middle seat empty, 5 years ago, and now has no room is going to complain.
Page 84 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 I think we are all willing to put up with a certain amount of agitation, as long as we have an economically viable and safe airline industry. I think the issues that were brought to the table in the earlier panel today are far more serious and are rooted more deeply in problems found in other places.
Mr. BASS. One other last question, Mr. Chairman.
Did any of you three gentlemen deal with the issue of the inter-relationship between responsibility of airport authorities to make sure that the gates are clear and properly organized and so forth, and the airlines' responsibility to make sure that they schedule the airlines correctly?
Is there a liability issue here on the part of the airports, as well as the airlines in terms of the problems that we have all read about, heard about, occurring?
Mr. PLAVIN. Mr. Bass, if I could. I think there are a couple of pieces to that. One is, are there enough gates?
Mr. BASS. Enough what?
Mr. PLAVIN. Enough gates.
I think one of the bigger issues for airports is that airports typically do not have any way of building gates, except as a part of some sort of an agreement with the user carriers. So, historically, it has rarely been the case that there are large numbers of unused gates at airports.
Secondly, because of the way they are financed, typically because of agreements, lease agreements with carriers, they are used by carriers, either primarily or exclusively.
The carrier typically staffs the podium where you collect the tickets, operates the loading bridge, manages the flow, the loading and unloading of the passengers. So, the airport operator really does not typically operate gates.
Page 85 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 They may have some gates that they would be willing to make available to new carriers, but typically it is the airline that operates the gates.
Mr. BASS. Yes, sir.
Mr. RUDEN. If I could contribute a thought to this. An industry which can put hundreds of passengers on a 747 and fly them half way around the world successfully as the airlines do every day with an enormous safety record, it ought to be possible to have the management of those companies communicate with the airport people about the availability of gates, and to communicate what they understand the facts to be truthfully to their passengers in a timely way. That is all we are asking for.
Mr. PLAVIN. I would agree with Mr. Ruden. I think the fact of communication is significant. One important reality is that the gates are typically operated by a variety of different carriers, meaning that if carrier A comes to a gate and his gate is occupied, he typically cannot go to the gate of carrier B without making an arrangement with them, which typically means he has to pay them.
Mr. BASS. Did you want to say anything, Mr. Mitchell?
Mr. MITCHELL. Yes, Congressman. I would just like to add very quickly to Mr. Ruden's comments about your question on Southwest Airlines. I think there are three reasons why they are not a problem in this discussion.
The first is their model is extraordinarily simple. Second, they have a desire to be everywhere in this Country that the consumer wants them over time. So, therefore, they are sill in a growth mode.
They are aggressive competitors, unlike some of the other of their competitors that have simply decided we have carved up the major hubs. They are going forward and they know what they need to do to succeed.
Thirdly, like everything else Southwest Airlines does, they have an outstanding customer service recovery plan, which means even if there is a problem on a flight, by the time that passenger leaves the airport, he or she has been made whole.
Page 86 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 He or she has been empathized with and responded to. So, while the number of complaints may be low, it is because Southwest Airlines responded to them in an effective way.
Mr. BASS. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. COOKSEY. A couple of quick comments. I heard the story about Southwest Airlines. I hear they fly one type of plane, 737s. Apparently, a pilot landed hard, which is the way I always land. Anyway this one landed hard.
Everybody was sitting on the airline stunned that they had landed so hard. There was total silence. Suddenly, the flight attendant got on and said, that was not the flight attendant's fault. That was not the pilot's fault. That was the asphalt.
Anyway, I think that is a part of what happens with them. I have a lot of confidence in the pilots, the professionalism of the people who are flying these planes. I think that the safety record is largely a testimony to what we are able to accomplish this day and time.
Perhaps they do need to learn some more about being customer friendly. That might prevent us from passing a lot of complicated legislation. My friend from Minnesota whose wife is from my home State of Louisiana has arrived back. He is very eloquent and fluent in French. That is what I am most impressed with. Mr. Oberstar.
Mr. OBERSTAR. Thank you very much, Mr. Cooksey as Chairman. Mr. Mitchell, I greatly respect your contribution. You have been a very thoughtful, articulate, and effective voice on behalf of passengers and the business community.
I know you have responded to a number of questions. I do take exception to your statement about financial penalties possibly leading to reduced safety margins and using the example of Air Florida.
Yesterday was the kind of day in which the Air Florida tragedy occurred. I have to point out that Air Florida was number one in line. Number three in line was a Republic aircraft. Number four behind it was a Northwest aircraft.
Page 87 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Both of those aircraft pulled out of line and went back to the gate to be de-iced. There was a push for all of those carriers to get off. Two of the first four in line chose the better part of valor to go back to be de-iced, rather than risk the tragedy.
If you take off from National Airport the next time and it is the usual departure to the north, just take a look at how high you are up from the 14th Street Bridge on a normal take-off. Then reflect that this aircraft nicked some cars on the bridge before ditching into the water and realized they had no lift. There was too much snow and accumulation on the wings and the fuselage of that aircraft. That was inexcusable. Just a minor exception to your observation there.
Mr. Plavin, every airport has it seems a unique arrangement with its carriers for maintenance of the runway surface. I had the unique opportunity to be at National Airport a couple of years ago when they had that double whammy; a big 26 inch snow storm and another 10 inch snow storm. I was out there waiting to fly back to God's country where we know about snow.
Mr. LIPINSKI. You went by way of Chicago, I assume.
Mr. OBERSTAR. No, we flew over Chicago to make sure that we arrived safely and on time. I had the unique opportunity to get out on the runway with the team that was making assessment of whether the runway could be cleared or the flights should be held and given a take-off time.
I saw the wonderful coordination of surface personnel, air traffic controllers, National Weather Service personnel, airlines all being done. It was a textbook case of how to make a decision on when to start clearing and when to put the flights back on the runway.
The Detroit situation I referred to earlier. Detroit has a different arrangement with Northwest than Minneapolis does. Minneapolis has a different arrangement with its carriers than Chicago does. How much variety do we have around the Country on these in the Northern Tier States on bad conditions?
Page 88 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Mr. PLAVIN. I would say that the only thing typical is that there is no typical relationship. What is common is the example you described of that team approach to the clearing of runways, taxiways, and apron areas.
Different members of that team will take primary responsibility at different airports. In every case, it is the airport's responsibility to make a determination that the runway should be closed or opened. After snow clearing operations, they may encourage the air traffic control operators to reopen the runway.
There are three tests, typically, of how a runway is determined to be ready. There is a visual inspection. There is a friction test that the airport does. Then there are additional reports from pilots as they land as to what kind of friction they are getting on their landing experience.
The other thing that happens, depending on the severity of the snow and the type of snow, is that they will work with the carriers to say, for example,' we will put two flights out now. Then, will clear again and put two more flights out. We will clear again.' That is really very typical. The actual entity responsible for the plowing may differ.
You may have different entities responsible for plowing the runway as compared to the apron or tarmac. In every case, it is subject to a formal Snow Committee of airport users that makes the decisions on how to operate the runway, how many planes can take off, and whether in fact it is indeed safe to operate.
Mr. OBERSTAR. Do all Northern Tier airports have temperature sensors in the runway surface?
Mr. PLAVIN. I do not know the answer to that. I would suspect that there are very few that have temperature sensors in the runway surface.
Mr. OBERSTAR. That is a very important safety indicator and operator indicator of timing to get out and to plow.
Page 89 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Mr. PLAVIN. It is not just whether the runway can accommodate it.
Mr. OBERSTAR. Clearing the lights. There are a whole series of decisions that have to be made. In the Detroit case, the airport authority has responsibility for the runway and the taxiway.
The carrier retains responsibility for the clearing the area just back of the alley, from the alley toward the terminal and could not get its operators out there to do that clearing.
So, when the airport cleared, the taxiway piled up a ridge of snow in the alleyway. Normally, the airline should have had their people out there to clear it.
Minneapolis does not have that problem. Minneapolis says we clear the whole thing. Is that a matter of airport taste or of airline agreement? Should not somebody have total responsibility for clearing the parking apron as well as the runway?
Mr. PLAVIN. The issue is very similar to the question about who controls gates, and how you decide how to operate the gates. The airline lease is usually the governing vehicle.
That is probably something that was negotiated years ago. As they get renegotiated, a lot of these areas come back. It is not typical.
Even when an airline has leasehold responsibility for a ramp, it is not typical that they have snow clearing responsibility. It is typically the airport's responsibility. There are the exceptions that you describe.
Mr. OBERSTAR. Does ACI have a model plan for airports?
Mr. PLAVIN. The model plan goes to the question about how they work together, rather than who should have the responsibility.
Mr. OBERSTAR. Well, somebody has got to have responsibility for this. This bifurcation is not a good idea. It has not worked very well in this case, the Detroit case. Passengers do not really care. They just want it all done so they do not have these kinds of problems.
Page 90 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 I thank you very much.
Mr. COOKSEY. Thank you very much, Mr. Oberstar. Mr. Lipinski.
Mr. LIPINSKI. I will yield my time, at the present time, to Ms. Norton.
Ms. NORTON. I thank you, Mr. Lipinski.
I apologize that I had to go to another hearing. These questions really come out of hearing from the last panel of witnesses. If these questions have been answered, then we can move forward.
One had to do with the place in line. Obviously, the carrier wants to make sure it does not lose its place in line. This may account for one of the reasons for the Detroit incident and for other waits on the tarmac.
There does seem to me that if that is the reason, that would be the first. It is a reason that would be easily handled. Here we have all systems on go. The air conditioning or the heat is on.
The engine is on. We are using gas. Whether it is waiting a half hour or 2 hours, it does seem to me that with computers and all of the kinds of communication that are available to airplanes, we could have these folks wait someplace else, if not at the gate, because others have to come to the gate, But someplace where all systems would not be on go. With systems now where we can tell people across the universe things through computers, we should not have to be using the system we were using 25 years ago.
What is keeping us from using modern technology so that a plane could go out only minutes before and not risk losing its place in line? I do not know if that would be Mr. Mitchell or Mr. Plavin.
Mr. PLAVIN. If I may just start. I suspect that it is really not one thing, but rather many things coming together. Clearly, there is the question of whether there is a place to put the aircraft, load it, and to put the passengers. That is one issue.
Page 91 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Ms. NORTON. That is also something that modern technology could help us figure out.
Mr. PLAVIN. Well, we certainly could provide additional facilities. There are financial issues involved, but they ought to be managable.
Ms. NORTON. The financial issues are involved in planes out there on go, using up gas, polluting the air, running the plane as if in fact they were going to take off. That is where the financial issues come into play, it seems to me, as opposed to warehousing the plane someplace.
We would have to figure that out. Again, I would assume we are smart enough to figure that out. I want to know, why are we doing the same thing we were doing before technology was available and why somebody has not thought through the notion of keeping a plane and then saying to the plane 15 minutes away, now we know it is time for you to go. You can move out, instead of lining them up the way we were lining them up before we had access to this technology?
There is no difference. I have been flying on these planes for a very long time. We are lining up the same way we were lining up when I first began to fly as a young woman. I cannot believe that the technology is not in place.
Are you using the technology to your benefit? You are certainly using the technology where it helps you make profit, and I do not blame you for doing so. I do not know why this technology has not been put to the convenience of the passenger by allowing planes not to lose their place in line, or having to stand in line in order not to lose their place in line.
That is what I am asking. Has anybody ever sat down and said, let us use this technology to figure this out so that we could save all kinds of fuel and save money for the airlines?
Why have you all not sat around a table and figured that out, since clearly the technology to figure that out is available?
Page 92 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Mr. PLAVIN. The point I was trying to make, obviously not very well, is that it is not really an issue of technology.
Ms. NORTON. Sure.
Mr. PLAVIN. The technological issues, the physical issues are manageable, as you suggest. What it does come down to is a combination of rules and regulations, labor contracts, standards about how a plane is considered to be inoperable or not in operation, when the flight is considered to be operating or non-operating.
All of those things, which certainly are addressable, are really more likely to be the issue than the question of the use of technology. The use of technology, obviously, can enhance the process.
Ultimately, what you will find, I believe is that you get into questions of whether a crew has exceeded its eligible flight hours, whether if it opens the door, it now will be subject to the flight limitations, whereas if it keeps the door closed, it will not.
I mean, it is odd to talk about these issues in that way, but I suspect that you will find that, that is really what is behind most of the issues.
Ms. NORTON. My whole point is, because the technology is in place, those other questions, it seems to me, should have been put on the table. Since we could say your number, plane-x, when you are likely to go out is number 14, since we know we can do that, just like we give people a number now when they come to Fresh Fields or someplace where they would otherwise stand in line so they can go shopping and then come back. Because the technology is in line, what clearly has not been done is that folks have sat down and said, since we can really do this technologically, now let us figure out how to put these other, sometimes more complicated, factors on the table, so that we are not burning up energy, burning up our consumers waiting.
What I want to know is whether anybody has ever held a meeting so that all of the things would be put on the table to say, is there a way to do this other than the way we were doing it 25 years ago? That is what I am really asking.
Page 93 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Mr. RUDEN. Ms. Norton, I do not want to be seen defending airlines in a hearing of this nature, but one of the issues here is that in all of the unrestricted airports, which is almost all of them but, I think, four the number of flights going in and out is really a product of commercial demand, the capacity of the airport, the number of gates, the amount of taxiway space it has and so on.
They all play a role in how the air traffic control people at the airports manage take-offs and landings. If you have only so many gates and you have got more flights coming in, you have to clear some of those gates and get those flights out.
Ms. NORTON. If I may say so, if in fact what you are doing now is saying to 15 airlines, line up, that is what you are doing now. All of your answers about these crews and all, those answers are irrelevant because you are making them line up anyway. The crews cannot get out anyway. So, you are making them do the most primitive thing; the thing you made them do 25 years ago.
I am saying if the way in which you are managing that now is to make them line up, you are saying to me that you could do it another way because you are doing it now. Your answer, Mr. Plavin about union contracts, your answer about some crews have to get out and, those answers are not germane because you are making them line up now.
They are lined up on the tarmac for 15 planes or whatever the union rules are; wherever the crews have to go. The crews had to go someplace else. They are lined up on the tarmac.
So, you do not let those crews out in order to get the next plane. So, I am left to conclude that since you are willing to line them up for hours, no matter what the other rules are.
That if you were to sit down around the table and say, is there a way to do this, for example, calling them out when their number comes up, using the technology that would allow you to do that, that you could get your crew changed then. You certainly cannot get it with them lined up on the tarmac.
Page 94 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 I am suggesting we are using the primitive line up until your number is called approach of a half century ago because the airlines have not sat down and figured out another way to do it which is right at hand. Instead of lining up physically, we could line up another way.
Yes, sir, Mr. Mitchell.
Mr. MITCHELL. I am not an airport export or an airline operations expert, but I think the situation that you are describing, you are accurate and you may actually be under stating the reality out there.
In terms of the question do people get around the table and talk about these issues, what was reported in the press was that at Detroit Metro Airport in the aftermath of the snowstorm there, that suddenly the airport people are going to be managing these things jointly in the same room with the airline people.
That is sort of astonishing. That tells me that they are probably not getting around a table and brain storming how to do things differently. In terms of your technology observation, also reported in the press, the Detroit Airport operations are largely managed from Minneapolis.
Two of the recommendations that are internal to Northwest are to put two button phone on the desks of the supervisors in Minneapolis and a second computer screen so they do not have to get up from their desks and go across the room in order to get feed back to tell the folks in Detroit what to do nor not to do. So, there is a woeful inadequacy of even basic technology, apparently, and apparently people are not talking who ought to be talking in this situation at Detroit.
Mr. LIPINSKI. Excuse me. I have to interrupt. We have to be finished here in 3.5 minutes. I have one question I would like to ask before we conclude.
Ms. NORTON. I am sorry, Mr. Chairman.
Page 95 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Mr. LIPINSKI. Thank you. That question is, we have heard a lot of talk this morning, this afternoon from witnesses and from members on the panel about fortress hubs.
An awful lot of people seem to believe that some of the problems, as far as the airline passengers stem from the fact that we have these fortress hubs, and there is no competition there.
The airlines are not that concerned about their passengers because their passengers have no place else to go. My question to the three members of the panel, and I would like a quick answer because like I said, we have to finish by a quarter to two.
Do you think that it would be wise for us to pass some kind of legislation to limit the percentage of gates any one airline might control at an airport?
David, you can go first.
Mr. PLAVIN. I would not agree with that. I think that what happens is that the hub airline can make use of almost any gate that you can provide. You would be doing the community a disservice to limit the number or percentage of gates that a hub carrier could have.
Obviously, you would like to have more gates. The airports would like to build more gates for as many carriers that would like to come. I do not think that limiting them for the hub carrier is something that I would support.
Mr. LIPINSKI. Mr. Ruden.
Mr. RUDEN. Well, I am no expert on this particular subject, but I would think that there might be a less intrusive way of addressing that issue, since we keep hearing about this problem that an airline has to pay for other gates when they need one.
It is either assigned, owned, or leased to another carrier. I would think that is an area that needs to be explored, both within the industry and maybe legislatively so that the airlines cooperate with each other in this respect. If they did that, again, a big segment of these consumer problems would disappear.
Page 96 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Segment 2 Of 3 Mr. LIPINSKI. Thank you. Mr. Mitchell, do you have an opinion? You have 33 seconds.
Mr. MITCHELL. I agree with what was just said.
Mr. LIPINSKI. Okay. Thank you very much, gentlemen.
Mr. Chairman, thank you very much for your indulgence.
Mr. COOKSEY. Thank you very much, Mr. Lipinski.
There being no other questions, I would like to thank you all for appearing here today. This will conclude the first of two hearings on this important legislation.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Costello follows:]
Mr. COOKSEY. We will have our second hearing next week. With that the Subcommittee hearing is adjourned.
[Whereupon, at 1:45 p.m., the committee was adjourned.]
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