Maryland Senator Proposes ‘Customers Not Cargo Act’ in Response to United Airlines Debacle

Chris Van Hollen is calling on his colleagues to co-sponsor a bill that will require airlines to offer better incentives in “re-accommodating” passengers.

Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen proposed the Customers Not Cargo Act in response to the public outrage against United Airlines.Chris Van Hollen/Twitter

David Dao's story has dominated headlines this week, as the Louisville doctor who was forcefully dragged from a United Airlines plane at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport has sparked an international conversation about, among other topics, the practice of "overbooking." Despite United initially claiming that Flight 3411 was overbooked, it has since been revealed that the flight wasn't actually overbooked; however, that doesn't mean much to the people who are still immensely outraged that Chicago aviation officers even laid a hand on Dao in the first place.

Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen is now asking his colleagues to help him do something about the safety of paid, seated passengers. The Customers Not Cargo Act "prohibits airlines from forcibly ejecting passengers from airplanes unless there is a public safety reason." It would also require airlines to offer "sufficient incentives to have passengers voluntarily deplane."

In a letter to his fellow senators, Van Hollen demands better from airlines.

We were all shocked and outraged this week when United Airlines forcibly and brutally removed Dr. David Dao from Flight 3411. That is why I’m introducing the Customers Not Cargo Act to prohibit airlines from forcibly removing passengers after they have already boarded the plane due to oversales or airline staff seeking to fly as passengers. Department of Transportation regulations make it clear that passengers must be compensated when they are involuntarily bumped prior to boarding, and many airlines offer incentives for customers to voluntarily rebook. These rules and the practice of overbooking should be reexamined to protect passengers. As we do that work, we should act immediately to ensure that airlines cannot force passengers who have already boarded to leave the plane in order to free up seats for others. Instead, they must provide sufficient incentives to encourage passengers to voluntarily deplane. It is outrageous that airlines can bodily remove passengers after boarding rather than providing appropriate incentives to encourage volunteers. Airlines should resolve these common overbooking issues prior to boarding. I hope you’ll join me in introducing the Customers Not Cargo Act, which would direct the Department of Transportation to update the oversales rule (14 CFR Part 250) to prohibit airlines from doing what United did to Dr. Dao this week. Instead, airlines would have to offer appropriate incentives to solicit volunteers, and do so before boarding whenever practicable. This narrowly-targeted update would protect the rights and dignity of passengers while ensuring that airlines retain flexibility to manage oversales.

Airlines already offer various incentives, be it cash or vouchers, as Dao and his fellow passengers were reportedly offered as much as $800 for their seats. Of course, one woman also proved this week that an airline can be much more generous when desperate, so perhaps Van Hollen was inspired by her slightly-less-viral tale.