Sweet: United prepares for turbulent hearings on Capitol Hill

SHARE Sweet: United prepares for turbulent hearings on Capitol Hill

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz | File photo/ AP

WASHINGTON – United Airlines executives better buckle their seat belts because they are in for a very rough ride when they testify Tuesday and Thursday before members of Congress outraged over a United passenger forcibly dragged off a plane at O’Hare Airport by Chicago Aviation police.

United CEO Oscar Munoz will testify before the entire House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Tuesday morning, with UAL president Scott Kirby at his side.

On Thursday, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation aviation panel – which earlier launched its own probe of UAL and the Chicago Department of Aviation about the April 9 incident –  will grill Kirby and Chicago Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans, who will have a lot to answer for when it comes to the now suspended aviation cops who yanked Dr. David Dao from his seat on the Louisville-bound plane.

United’s army of government affairs staffers, outside lobbyists and account execs from Edelman, United’s outside public relations firm trying to manage the crisis, will be stationed on Capitol Hill monitoring the hearings.

United heads into these hearings at their peril because the airline, in this situation, has no congressional allies.

Beating up and ejecting a passenger who was properly in a seat because United wanted the seat for a crew member – with the bloody mess caught on video –  is politically indefensible. On that, Democrats and Republicans will be in rare agreement.

In the run-up to the congressional hearings, United has been in full damage control mode. The bloodied and injured Dao negotiated a settlement with United for an undisclosed sum. United also announced a series of policy changes last week addressing overbooking and bouncing passengers from flights.

Munoz launched a media blitz – a contrition tour with interviews first on ABC then with some national print outlets, topped by a sit down with NBC’s Lester Holt. United also took out ads in 18 papers – including cities that are big United hubs.

Other airline executives will also testify Tuesday: Alaska Airline Vice President Joseph Sprague, Southwest Airline Vice President Bob Jordan and American Airlines Vice President of “customer experience” Kerry Philipovitch.

The other airlines, while United’s rivals, may not use the hearing to gloat. With a FAA reauthorization bill pending, the airline industry is not looking for more passenger rights, rules and regulations.

Even though United voluntarily made some changes, lawmakers have introduced Dao-inspired legislation to, among other items, ban overbooking, bouncing a passenger already on a plane and lifting caps on payments for people who are bounced.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky D-Ill., whose measure would end involuntary bumping, said this is an issue ripe for bi-partisan action.

The Illinois House members on the Transportation panel are Democrats Rep. Dan Lipinski and Cheri Bustos, and Republicans Rodney Davis and Michael Bost. Sen. Tammy Duckworth D-Ill., is on the Senate Commerce Committee.

On Thursday, besides Kirby and Evans, senators will hear from National Consumers League executive director Sally Greenberg; International President, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO Sara Nelson; and a Vice President Airlines for America, Sharon Pinkerton.

Late last month, I flew United round trip from Dulles to Seattle. Except for no legroom in coach and narrow, uncomfortable seats, the flight was fine. The United personnel at the airports – and the flight attendants on board the plane – were extra solicitous. The United execs and Chicago’s Evans, however, should be keeping their seat belts on during the hearings. Expect a lot of turbulence.

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