- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 1999

The nation’s major airlines, hoping to quell rising passenger complaints and keep Congress off their backs, are taking steps to make air travel a little easier.
The airlines promised, as part of the new effort, to be more forthcoming with information about the lowest fares, delays and lost bags. The airlines also agreed to allow passengers to return tickets within 24 hours without penalty, giving consumers more time to compare prices.
While passengers and industry watchers welcomed any improvements to the increasingly crowded and expensive airlines, others were not so sure the changes would make much difference.
“It is the first day things are supposed to be better and I haven’t seen the best service. It makes me skeptical,” said David Meharg, who was grounded by fog Tuesday at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Mr. Meharg was trying to get home to Boston after a business trip to Tampa, Fla., and the weather kept delaying his US Airways flight home. He said he was annoyed that airline officials did not tell him about a nonstop flight from Tampa to Boston, which he would have gladly paid for.
“They want to be able to say things are better, but it seems clear they are being made to make these changes,” he said.
Leading lawmakers warned they will be watching the industry through the busy holiday season and into next year. If things don’t change, Congress will step in and force service improvements with a law.
Industry observers called the changes a good first step, but said they will not solve the industry’s biggest problems of overcrowding and rising airfares, analysts and consumers said.
“This is what the airlines should have been doing all along. It’s a shame they had to be goaded into doing this by Congress,” said David S. Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a passenger rights organization. “But the truth is, these changes do not solve the problems that are bothering travelers.”
Mr. Stempler said factors like the strong economy and an aging air traffic control system will continue to burden the industry. As he sees it, the most frustrating problems will continue unless a softening economy were to drive down airfares and the nation improves air traffic with better airports and more runways.
The airlines crafted the changes after criticism in the wake of a New Year’s snowstorm that blanketed Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport and left thousands of travelers stranded for hours, some in airports, others on planes without food, water or access to bathrooms.
Amid rising complaints, Congress drafted legislation to force the airlines to improve treatment of passengers. Airline executives, fearing that new laws would be costly, vowed in June to make voluntary changes.
An official with Arlington, Va.-based US Airways said that while a few changes were made, many of the commitments already are part of company policy.
“We are a customer-oriented business, and from day one we have said we will get lost bags to passengers in one day,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.
Regarding one change, the official said: “There has been a lot of hubbub about flight delays. So now, every 15 minutes we will give passengers updates.”
Leading lawmakers applauded the voluntary steps, but warned that if the industry does not clean up its act, Congress will revisit the issue next year.
Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who co-wrote a proposal for a “Passengers Bill of Rights,” directed the Department of Transportation to monitor the airlines over the next six months. If things don’t change, he will bring back his proposal, which was co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.
“The airlines have done all these verbal gymnastics to convince people that these problems will be fixed,” Mr. Wyden said. “But I think we’ll see in a few months that these commitments are not worth much more than the paper they are written on.”
Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a Washington-based Ralph Nader group, said the industry commitments “lack teeth” and that consumers will have little recourse if airlines don’t keep their word.
“Somewhere between all the smoke and mirrors there are some real changes. But for the most part, these commitments don’t break any new ground,” Mr. Hudson said. “Assuming [the airlines] keep all of their promises, I would say the glass is still 97 percent empty for consumers.”
Passengers had mixed reviews of the service they were getting from the airlines. A thick blanket of morning fog, which closed Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport all morning Tuesday, put the industry promises to the test.
Like Mr. Meharg, Denyse Clark and her daughter Elyse, 12, had their own tale of woe.
The two were traveling from Charleston, S.C., to spend Christmas in Manhattan. Like Mr. Meharg, they had been waiting all morning for the weather to clear, anxious to arrive in New York in time for a Broadway production of “The Lion King.”
But Mrs. Clark noticed that US Airways had, in fact, been giving updates every 15 minutes, something that put her at ease. What’s more, the airline presented her with the option of discounted tickets or an exchange for rail tickets into Manhattan.
“If the problem is the weather, there is only so much the airline can do,” Mrs. Clark said. “But US Airways has definitely been more helpful this time.”

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