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U.S. lawmakers press United on man dragged off plane

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United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz (L) and UAL President Scott Kirby prepare to testify at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on 'Oversight of U.S. Airline Customer Service,' in the aftermath of the forced removal on April 9 of a passenger from a UAL Chicago flight, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 2, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

United Airlines Inc (UAL.N) executives faced harsh criticism from U.S. lawmakers that demanded answers on Tuesday following the forcible removal of a passenger from an overbooked flight in April, with the carrier’s chief executive again apologizing for the incident.

United CEO Oscar Munoz’s appearance before the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was a test of how the Republican-led Congress would address company misconduct. Republicans largely back President Donald Trump’s push to undo rules and regulations they say hamper business growth.

Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, a Republican, said in opening the hearing that Congress will take action if airlines do not act and added they “would not like the outcome.” He said the airlines owe the public answers. “Something is broken,” he said.

Munoz apologized again for the incident in written testimony and took responsibility for a series of problems that led to the incident. He first apologized on April 11 in a letter to employees.

“This is a turning point for United,” his testimony said. “It is my mission to ensure we make the changes needed to provide our customers with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of respect … ultimately our actions will speak louder than words.”

Joining Munoz at the hearing will be United President Scott Kirby as well as executives from American Airlines (AAL.O), Southwest Airlines (LUV.N), Alaska Airlines (ALK.N) and a consumers’ union consultant.

The executives will be grilled on the growing consumer anger directed at airlines, which came to a head when Dr. David Dao was dragged from a United flight at a Chicago airport on April 9 to make room for crew members on the aircraft.

Representative Rick Larsen, the top Democrat on the House panel’s aviation subcommittee, told Reuters he expected it to be “very pointed” and that executives should anticipate “pretty rough” questions.

United last week reached a settlement with the 69-year-old Dao, whose removal prompted intense public backlash when fellow passengers released video online showing aviation police dragging him down the aisle as passengers cried out and gasped at his bloodied face.

United also changed its policies by offering passengers who give up their seats up to $10,000 and by reducing overbooked flights. The airline has promised to no longer call on law enforcement officers to deny ticketed passengers their seats.

Southwest said last week it would end overbooking altogether. The company will tell Congress it expects that denied boarding incidents will fall 80 percent as a result of the change.

Alaska Airlines told the committee in written testimony it is considering changes to its overbooking and other customer service policies.

Airline executives are expected at Tuesday’s hearing to outline specific actions they have taken or will take to try to prevent future incidents such as the one on the United flight, congressional aides said.

A U.S. Senate panel will hold a separate hearing on Thursday that will include the head of the Chicago transportation department.

RELAXING AIRLINE REGULATIONS

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the president would not, at this point, weigh in on whether new airline regulations are needed.

“I’ll leave it up to Congress to decide whether it’s appropriate to address this legislatively. Once there was a piece of legislation, then we could have an opportunity to weigh in,” Spicer said on Monday.

But it is unclear how any new legislation would square with Trump’s deregulatory push.

Shortly after he took office, Trump directed federal agencies to do away with two old regulations for every new one. He asked airline executives in February to identify regulatory hurdles.

The Trump administration in March halted public comment on a Obama-era move to probe some airlines’ prevention of various travel websites from showing their fares and whether to require greater transparency about baggage fees along with quoted fares.

The administration is also extending the compliance date by one year for a new regulation requiring reporting of data for mishandled baggage and wheelchairs in aircraft cargo compartments.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on whether the United incident would prompt any regulatory changes. Her department said earlier this month it was investigating the matter.

Congressman Peter DeFazio, the top Democrat on the House committee holding Tuesday’s hearing, said it was “way too early” to know if the voluntary policy changes announced by United are permanent.

Larsen said new airline regulations were not yet under discussion but that if carriers did not make a firm commitment to improve customer service, then “the options for legislation open.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Alana Wise in New York; additional reporting by Steve Holland and Amanda Becker in Washington; writing by Amanda Becker; Editing by Mary Milliken and Meredith Mazzilli)

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