On a day when his red-eye flight from the West Coast was delayed for over two hours, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal foreshadowed his efforts to strengthen a passenger bill of rights.
The consumer-oriented Democrat and former longtime state attorney general said he would propose eliminating a $1,350 compensation cap for travelers who are bumped from overbooked flights.
The federal government would also be able to levy fines against airlines that engage in the practice under a 2017 passenger bill of rights measure that Blumenthal said he plans to unveil on April 24.
Blumenthal, who is ranking member of a consumer protection subcommittee in the Senate, is further seeking to codify state and federal law to make it easier for bumped passengers to sue for punitive damages.
The push by Blumenthal follows a tumultuous week for the airline industry, after a Kentucky doctor was forcibly removed from an overbooked United Airlines flight and suffered what his lawyers said was a broken nose, two missing teeth and concussion. The incident, caught on video, has sparked a national outcry for passenger protections.
“The United incident is hardly isolated or singular,” Blumenthal told Hearst Connecticut Media. “Overbooking has become rampant. The airlines’ thirst for profits is no excuse to promising a seat that the airlines know that they can’t deliver.”
United, which has apologized for the incident and said no paying customers would be forcibly removed from future oversold flights, did not respond to a request for comment.
An industry spokesperson warned that travelers could be harmed by a congressional overreach, and said U.S. carriers voluntarily agreed to a 12-point customer service commitment in 1999 to protect passengers.
“The practice has enabled carriers to keep fares low, while also managing the no-show rate of passengers on any given route,” Airlines for America’s Vaughn Jennings said of overbooking. “In the event a flight is oversold, carriers compensate their customers. We continue to caution against taking unnecessary regulatory actions, which could negatively impact the 2.2. million customers who take to the skies every day.”
Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org and a member of the Federal Aviation Administration’s rule-making advisory committee, commended Blumenthal, but said he faces a uphill battle.
“I think it has a snowball’s chance in the Republican Congress,” Hudson said. “We’re calling for the secretary of transportation to suspend and end the power of airlines to overbook. We think it’s obsolete and makes no sense in today’s economy.”
Blumenthal said he would seek Republican co-sponsors of the legislation, which would also require airlines to be more transparent about fees charged for checking bags and seat selection. He dismissed industry criticism that ticket prices would increase if airlines are no longer allowed to overbook.
“That is absolutely no excuse, because the numbers of airlines have been so reduced that many of them have monopolistic power over the most common routes,” Blumenthal said. “If there’s evidence of collusion — and I’ve raised this issue in the past, sometimes the airlines seem to be sending disguised messages to each other — there should be an antitrust action.”
Blumenthal said the fines haven’t been set yet in the proposal, which he said would try to remove jurisdictional and legal hurdles that could make it difficult for Connecticut residents using New York City airports.
“Where do you sue?” he said. “Do you use state law or federal law?”