Congress eyes airline overhaul after United incident

Congress is eyeing an overhaul of airline policies after a man was violently removed from a United Airlines flight earlier this month — and members will have plenty of bills to choose from.

Capitol Hill has seen a flurry of action this week as lawmakers returned for the first time since the controversial dragging incident took place.

Lawmakers from both parties have introduced a spate of new measures to target airlines’ overbooking and bumping policies and strengthen traveler protections, while House and Senate committees scheduled two hearings on airline consumer issues for next week.

Some of the major airlines have already voluntarily revamped their customer service policies, which could help keep federal regulators off the industry’s back.

But a top aide on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee still expects airline consumer protections to be hotly debated in an upcoming must-pass aviation bill.

“I’m sure every member is going to come in [to the hearing] with a story, whether it’s their story or their own experience, or it’s something they heard from constituents,” Holly E. Woodruff Lyons, deputy general counsel and staff director of the aviation subcommittee, said at a legislative conference this week.

“One of things that we heard from members is, when you’re in a seat and you’re buckled up, they shouldn’t be able to come in and take you off, for any reason at all. And so I think we’re going to hear a lot about that in Congress.”

Here are some of the legislative options that are under consideration.

The “Customers Not Cargo” Act

One of the first pieces of legislation to follow in the wake of the United uproar was a bill from Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) that would ban airlines from forcibly removing passengers off overbooked flights after they are already seated on the plane.

Under federal law, airlines are allowed to overbook flights and bump passengers against their will, although there are federal rules that must be followed in those instances.

If a flight is overbooked, it’s usually resolved before passengers board, but there is no current requirement to do so. Airlines set their own boarding policies, which customers agree to whenever they buy a ticket and thus agree to a “contract of carriage.”

“We should act immediately to ensure that airlines cannot force passengers who have already boarded to leave the plane in order to free up seats for others,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “Instead, they must provide sufficient incentives to encourage passengers to voluntarily deplane.”

The Secure Equity in Airline Transportation (SEAT) Act

A House Republican is floating a bill similar to Van Hollen’s.

Rep. Neal Dunn (Fla.) crafted legislation directing the Department of Transportation (DOT) to revise federal rules so that airlines cannot involuntarily remove a customer from their seat to make room for another passenger or an airline employee.

But the measure is also tailored to ensure that law…

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