United Airlines called the forcible removal of a passenger in April a "horrible failure" on Tuesday and promised to "do better" by reducing overbooking, limiting the use of law enforcement, and increasing the cash incentive to passengers who voluntarily give up their seat before boarding.
"We had a horrible failure three weeks ago," Oscar Munoz, United's CEO, told the House Transportation Committee during the hearing. "It is not who we are. It is not this company and frankly it is not this industry."
The testimony comes nearly a month after video spread across social media of a Kentucky doctor who was dragged off a United plan after the flight was overbooked, which prompted widespread outrage, a federal investigation, and a lawsuit by the doctor against the company. The company settled with the passenger outside of court.
Munoz said a company report on the incident revealed several points where the company failed. Munoz said the airline called on security when there was no safety threat, it booked crew at the last minute and didn't offer enough incentives for passengers to give up a seat.
"Our employees did not have the authority to do what was right or use common sense," he added. "This has to be a turning point for 87,000 professionals here at United."
Munoz, who was accompanied by United Airlines President Scott Kirby, was one of five airline executives who were grilled by the committee members during, an at times, tense hearing.
Duncan Hunter (R-CA) told the executives he wanted to ask them "Why do you hate the American people?" but then decided against it.
"Then I was going to ask 'How much do you hate the American people?'" he said "But I'm not going to ask that either."
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) suggested that United forced the doctor off its flight because his seat was purchased for a lower fare. She asked Munoz if the airline chooses passengers to give up their seat based on how much they pay for their ticket.
"Is that how you determine who to mistreat?" she asked.
"It was a mistake of epic proportions in hindsight, clearly," said Munoz.
A large portion of the hearing focused on fees charged to consumers for cancellations and rebooking. The executives explained that overbooking is a common practice to keep fares down for passengers while ensuring the company does not lose money by offering low ticket prices.
But Bob Jordan, a Southwest Airlines executive, said that beginning May 8, the airline will no longer overbook flights.
Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who introduced a bill that would require airlines to clearly disclose fees and policies to consumers, asked Jordan how it would affect the airline's bottom line.
"Southwest, are you going to go broke?" he asked.
"We are not going to go broke," said Jordan.
Leticia Miranda is a consumer affairs reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Leticia Miranda at email@example.com.
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