Lawmakers again took aim at airlines on 4 May, chastising the president of United Airlines for customer service failures and threatening to use an upcoming Federal Aviation Administration spending bill to force improvements.

The hearing of the Senate's aviation subcommittee, which came two days after a US House of Representatives committee held a similar hearing, further heightened pressure on an industry reeling from recent public relations setbacks.

But despite hours of hearings this week, it remains unclear if a Republican-backed Congress might agree to some form of new airline oversight.

"We have acted in a bipartisan fashion in the past to protect the flying public, and we are prepared to do so again when we begin later this year on the FAA reauthorisation," says Democratic Florida senator Bill Nelson.

The FAA's current spending bill expires in September.

Some lawmakers used the 4 May hearing to thank United for quickly overhauling policies to prevent a repeat of the 9 April incident in which security officers dragged passenger David Dao, bloodied, from a United-contracted regional jet.

Other senators attributed customer service failings to reduced airline competition and willingness by carriers to put Wall Street investors ahead of customers.

"You need to ask yourselves… are you prioritising those shareholders… over the basic needs of consumers?" says Washington Democratic senator Maria Cantwell. "I think it may be time for a new passenger bill of rights to ensure we are focusing on the customer experience."

Though United chief executive Oscar Munoz and president Scott Kirby testified at the 2 May hearing, only Kirby attended on 4 May, repeating many points he made days earlier.

Kirby says United already took steps to prevent situations similar to the Dao event, including reducing overbooking and authorising employees to compensate passengers up to $10,000 in exchange for giving up their seats.

Those were among ten policy changes the carrier rolled out on 27 April.

Kirby also defends overbooking, ticket change fees and baggage fees as means by which United can sell lower fares to leisure customers.

Also, he notes United recently improved its operation.

"For the most part, everything else at United is going really well. Operationally, United is running the best airline… that we ever run," Kirby tells lawmakers.

Airlines for American senior vice-president Sharon Pinkerton tells lawmakers airlines have already pledged to eliminate or reduce overbooking and not to use law enforcement officers to remove passengers from aircraft, except in cases involving safety and security.

She says airlines invest $1.5 billion monthly on product and service improvements, and describes the industry as having thriving competition.

House lawmakers, including transportation committee chairman Bill Shuster, also threatened new regulation during the 2 May hearing.

"Seize this opportunity," Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, told a panel that included representatives from American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United. "If you don't, we are going to come... and you aren't going to like it."

Source: Cirium Dashboard