Coronavirus , Airline Fees, Top Aviation Subcommittee’s Hearing Agenda

March 4, 2020 by Kate Michael

WASHINGTON – William McGee, an aviation consultant had a simple, overarching message for the members of the House Aviation subcommittee on Tuesday.

“If you’re not in premium class or an Elite Frequent Flier, watch out,” he said.

McGee was one of three witnesses to appear before the house panel during a session entitled “The Airline Passenger Experience: What It Is and What It Can Be.” 

The subcommittee’s goal was to explore ways in which Congress and the airline industry can together foster innovation to benefit the general public.

It was the first such hearing in years  aimed to promote “a safe, comfortable and dignified travel experience,” according to Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash.

Though air travel has both revolutionized the world and become second-nature, not all customers enjoy the same aviation experience.  

“The quality of airlines’ operational performance has improved over the last decade, including upgraded baggage tracking delays and voluntary compensation for passengers during delays,” said Andrew Von Ah, director of physical Infrastructure for the Government Accountability Office.

But Von Ah went on to say there is still a lack of consistency across airlines when it comes to customer experience.

For instance, he said, “Complaints [of accessibility, discrimination] have steadily increased over the last decade by 10%, with a specific uptick in the last few years.”

Chief among these complaints is accessibility. Fifty-seven million Americans have a disability, and need mobility assistance, or emotional support and service animals to fly.  

Yet commercial air is the only mode of transportation where mobility challenged customers must surrender their assistive devices to travel.  

At the same time, only 4.5% of the fleet of the eight major airlines have lavatories — like SpaceFlexOne — accessible to people in wheelchairs, despite plane manufacturers having these products on the market today, and available for new builds or retrofittings. 

“Systematic change is needed, not [to be offered] more bonus miles,” said Lee Page, senior associate advocacy director for Paralyzed Veterans of America, describing his own flight experience as a permanently disabled passenger. 

“All too often, DOT serves the interest of the airlines, not the flying public,” said McGee.

And while it wasn’t the focus of the hearing, COVID-19 was top of mind.  

“Right now, one of the things on people’s minds is Coronavirus,”said Rep. Garrett Graves, R-La.  “Aviation travel needs to be as safe as possible.”

“Five years ago, GAO recommended, in response to Ebola, that DOT establish an aviation plan for communicable disease outbreaks and it hasn’t happened,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, calling again for the creation of that plan. 

Panelists, however, discouraged the general public from being afraid of flying.  

“It is completely safe to fly right now,” said Dr. Joe Leader, CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association. “There hasn’t been a traceable transmission on aircraft to this date.”

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