Airline service has become worse and customer complaints continue to rise despite industry promises to clean up its act, according to an annual study on airline quality released yesterday.
Industry observers and some lawmakers said that airlines have failed to address rising passenger complaints and have renewed calls for a “passenger bill of rights” law.
While baggage handling has improved slightly, service has declined in other areas like on-time performance, denied boardings, mishandled baggage and passenger complaints, according to the annual review of the 10 largest air carriers by Brent Bowen of the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Dean Headley of Wichita State University.
“There was a slight improvement in baggage handling. Other than that, all the other measurements got worse. So, overall, things are a little bit worse than they were before and they are slipping in the wrong direction,” Mr. Headley said.
Southwest Airlines Co., the largest low-fare carrier, had the best service, and United Airlines, the largest carrier, had the worst rating. Arlington, Va.-based US Airways, which came in first in 1998, slipped to sixth.
US Airways spokesman Rick Weintraub acknowledged that 1999 was a bad year for service, a trend he blamed on poor weather, training and problems with the nation’s air traffic-control system.
But he said: “The system is now running very smoothly and we are back on track for stellar performance.”
The industry, hoping to prevent congressional legislation, in December announced a plan to make voluntary service improvements. But the authors of the study, and one leading lawmaker, said the industry’s self-policing has failed.
“This study will give me fresh ammo in my efforts to get an enforceable passenger bill of rights,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, who joined Sen. John McCain in sponsoring such legislation last year.
“This study shows that the plan the airlines offered is not worth the paper it is printed on,” he added.
A spokesman for Mr. McCain said the Arizona Republican found the study “troubling” but would wait to consider new legislation until after the Department of Transportation completes its own audit of the industry in June.
Customer complaints jumped 130 percent from 1.08 complaints per 1,000 passengers in 1998 to 2.48 per 1,000 last year, said the report, which is based on Transportation Department data.
The number of flights arriving on time slipped from 77.2 percent to 76.1 percent last year, while the number of denied boardings was virtually unchanged.
The only good news was that airlines were doing a better job handling bags. The study found that airlines mishandled 5.08 bags per 1,000 passengers in 1999, down from 5.16 per 1,000 a year earlier.
The authors of the study acknowledged that the industry has been trying, but they said it may be time for the government to step in.
“I think we are to a point where some type of reregulation is going to be necessary,” Mr. Bowen said.
Airline officials took issue with the study, arguing that industry critics have not given their voluntary service improvements a chance to take effect.
“Our plan has only been out for the past three and a half months while the period they were studying was all of 1999,” said David Fuscus, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents the major airlines.
“You have to be fair and you have to be honest and we don’t think they are being either.”
Amid rising customer complaints about delays, crowded flights and lost baggage, lawmakers last year threatened to force industry improvements with legislation that came to be called the “Passenger Bill of Rights.”
Congress agreed to delay legislative action after industry leaders promised to make changes. But lawmakers instructed the Department of Transportation to conduct an audit of the industry and issue its findings in June.
The airlines promised, as part of the new effort, to be more forthcoming about low fares, delays and lost bags. The industry also agreed to allow passengers to return tickets within 24 hours to give them time to compare prices.
Separately, some airlines answered customer complaints of overcrowding by adding more space between seats. American Airlines and United Airlines announced plans to removing thousands of coach seats from its fleet to create more leg room.
Mr. Wyden said he fully expects that the Transportation Department findings will parrot the university study, while industry leaders said they expect the government report will show improvements.
The Department of Transportation, which regularly tracks airline performance, found that the 10 largest carriers posted a 74.8 percent on-time record in February. That was an improvement from January’s 73.7 percent record but lower than the 78.9 percent on-time performance in February 1999.