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Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty

Representing the 5th District of Connecticut

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Esty to United CEO Munoz: Improving Customer Service Requires ‘More than Press Releases’

May 2, 2017
Press Release
Esty: ‘I never want to see a paying customer pulled off a flight to move a crew’

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty (CT-5), Vice Ranking Member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, today questioned United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz at a committee hearing examining federal oversight of U.S. airline customer service.

Esty shared flying horror stories from her own constituents, recalling cases in which Connecticut residents were stranded on a tarmac or at a gate for hours.

“How are we going to fix this? What are you going to do?” Esty asked Munoz. “Not a press release. But what are you going to do in changing your policies? Among them, can I suggest, I never want to see a paying customer pulled off a flight to move a crew […] because that is the ultimate indication that you have not managed your system well, and you are asking customers to pay for your failure to manage.”

“It’s got to be more than press releases,” Esty added. “It’s got to actually be change in policies and practices and, most importantly, priorities.”

To watch Esty’s remarks, visit https://youtu.be/eovnVGHO5AA.

Here is a transcript of Esty’s remarks:

Thank you Mr. Chairman, and thank you for the endurance of the panel. But our constituents have to endure. And that’s why you’re here. You’re not just in the transportation business. You’re in the customer service business. And we’ve seen some rather noteworthy, disturbing failures in the last few weeks.

With the bad weather a couple weeks ago, I had many calls in my office, and many people who see me on the airline every week talking about how they’d been stranded. I had to help a passenger who was in a wheelchair who was left for three hours sort of abandoned at a gate, and no one was keeping track of her, letting her know what was going on, checking to see: Could she get to the bathroom? Could she have any help? And on customer service, frankly no low ticket price makes up for a miserable experience.

With the consolidations that we’re seeing, with four of the airlines controlling 85 percent of the traffic, when I fly from Hartford, Connecticut, I don’t have a lot of choices. And that’s true for my colleagues, and it is more importantly true for our constituents. They have very little choice. You are in a near-monopoly position.

And I think that’s why so many are concerned and you’re hearing this linkage to FAA privatization. If the market were functioning well, this could never have happened, Mr. Munoz, never have happened. And we know well that that was a shocking and thankfully rare event. We don’t, and don’t want to, see violence on airlines. But unless we figure out a way to guarantee that customers are coming first, you’re going to see more of that.

My colleague Richard Blumenthal is introducing legislation in the Senate today to deal with raising what those required offer prices are, putting in new standards. And I know there’s been well-drafted – and hats off to the PR folks who helped you draft the response belatedly – but you can understand why we’re skeptical that the market is going to solve it, because it should have prevented this from happening.

And so, genuinely, what kind of assurance can we have that there shouldn’t be legislation in place, that I don’t continue to have constituents telling me that they’ve been diverted to Dulles because of snow and left on the tarmac for four hours, standing in sight of stairs, and they just sat there with no update for four hours. Now I understand there are snowstorms, but why can’t somebody roll stairs over? I was getting calls from the plane to my office saying, “Can’t you do something? We can see the stairs. No one will tell us what’s happening.” Then they started to run out of fuel.

That bespeaks a focus on the bottom line and having lost the customer. If the customer is really king or queen, you’ve forgotten that. So how do we fix this? How do we fix this other than folks here, folks here having to draft legislation, for you to treat our constituents with the respect and safety they deserve from the airlines, with the consolidation that’s happened? Because I think it’s really important. You know, we talk about the importance of customers being able to vote with their dollars – my constituents don’t have that choice. I don’t have that choice. If I need to go and be here in time for votes, I don’t have that choice. I don’t have that, and I can no longer take like a 3 o’clock flight and think I’m going to get here on time. I have to back it up, because I can’t count on that.

And the lost productivity is billions and billions and billions of dollars of Americans right now who face the same choice that our colleagues all face, and saying, “Well I guess I gotta take that really early flight, make sure I get there on time. I might get bumped.” How are we going to fix this? What are you going to do? Not a press release. But what are you going to do in changing your policies? Among them, can I suggest, I never want to see a paying customer pulled off a flight to move a crew. You charter a plane if you need to do it. But that should never happen. You need to move your crews, we all get that. But it should never be at the expense of a paying customer ever, and that’s gonna be the first thing on a bill I’m signing onto, because that is the ultimate indication that you have not managed your system well, and you are asking customers to pay for your failure to manage.

So genuinely, please come to the table with us and figure out how we’re going to set standards in place and an ability to hold you accountable. And I know none of you want to be here. Frankly, we don’t want to be here either. We want our constituents to be happy. We want them to get there safely, and get home safely on time, and we do, too. But it’s got to be more than press releases. It’s got to actually be change in policies and practices and, most importantly, priorities. Thank you.

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