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UAL CEO Munoz on the Hot Seat Today

Crain's Chicago Business

Oscar Munoz's apology tour continues this morning with a stop in Washington.

Ever since a Kentucky doctor was dragged battered and bleeding from a flight at O'Hare International Airport on April 9 for refusing to give up his seat, the public has been looking to ask the folks at United a thing or two. Today, members of the House Transportation Committee get their chance, when the United CEO testifies before the panel.

Airlines rank right up there with cable companies when it comes to public opinion. After a disastrous initial reaction that only made things worse, Munoz and United tried to get ahead of the controversy by announcing a number of policy changes, such as vowing to not call police to remove passengers who are not security threats, not bumping passengers who already are seated on flight and giving gate agents a lot more authority—and more money at their disposal—to make things right when passengers get bumped. Southwest and Delta jumped in, too.

But United is not getting off the hook that easy.

"This hearing could go for a very long time," said U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, a Democrat who represents the Southwest Side and has been on the Transportation Committee for over a decade. "Other members are just going to want to beat up on the airlines. I want to get into the underlying issues: What's their need for involuntary bumping? Some have suggested the FAA shouldn't allow airlines to involuntarily bump passengers or overbook."

There aren't a lot of people rushing to defend the airlines, and the FAA reauthorization bill is up this year, which gives Congress a chance to come up with legislation.

"It's a good opportunity to put pressure on airlines, whether that's to change voluntarily, as they're starting to do, or maybe do something legislatively, maybe put more passenger protections in place," Lipinski said.

"Somehow, we've got to make this work better for everybody. It's not just to beat up on the airlines. A lot of people feel they have no choice—things have gotten bad, but what can I do about it? That's why this video struck a nerve."