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Van Hollen’s new bill intended to protect airline passengers

Christopher Van Hollen

Sen. Christopher Van Hollen, D-Md. (2013. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — Responding to Sunday’s incident on a United Airlines jet, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., is drafting a bill that would prohibit airlines from forcibly removing passengers after they have boarded a flight.

Van Hollen’s proposed Customers Not Cargo Act would make it illegal for airlines to force passengers to leave a plane due to overbooking or to accommodate flight crews flying as passengers.

The proposed legislation comes after David Dao, 69, was dragged by police off a full United Airlines flight after he refused to give up his seat for employees who needed to board the plane to get to other flights they were working.

A video of airport security grabbing Dao out of his seat and dragging him off the flight sparked worldwide public outrage and multiple apologies from United. Dao’s face was dripping with blood in the footage, and fellow passengers could be heard screaming and yelling for the violence to stop.

“It made my blood boil, it really upset me,” Van Hollen told Capital News Service Thursday, referring to the video. “It was outrageous.”

Dao was one of four customers who were randomly selected to deplane the flight to Louisville, Kentucky, from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to make room for crew members. Dao, a physician, said he could not volunteer his seat because he had patients to see the next morning.

Van Hollen plans to introduce his bill after the congressional recess.

“What has to happen is a change of policy,” Van Hollen said.

The bill would direct the Department of Transportation to update the policy on overbooked flights and push airlines to offer incentives for passengers to voluntarily deplane.

Current regulations require airlines to compensate passengers when customers are involuntarily removed from a flight before boarding, but Van Hollen said the rules for bumping a passenger from a flight after boarding is completed need to be reexamined.

“The financial risk of overbooking should be on the airline that overbooked, not the passenger that paid for a ticket and is sitting on the airplane,” Van Hollen said.

The incident highlighted a broader issue with airline rules that could potentially affect everyone, Van Hollen said.

“It is a very perverse and backward incentive in the system,” he said.

According to Van Hollen, airline companies are allowed to offer any amount of value to encourage a customer to voluntarily give up a seat before boarding, but if a passenger has to be forcibly ejected from a plane, then there is a maximum reimbursement of a little more than $1,000.

Van Hollen said this could encourage airlines to eject a passenger rather than provide sufficient incentives before boarding.

He said he expects bipartisan support for this bill.

Dao’s attorney, Thomas Demetrio, said in a press conference Thursday that his client will probably file a lawsuit against the company.

Dao was discharged from the hospital Wednesday night. Dao lost two front teeth, suffered a concussion, has a broken nose and will undergo reconstructive surgery, Demetrio said.