- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 22, 2000

Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater met yesterday with representatives from airlines, unions and other groups and said passengers frustrated by flight delays should see service improve as a handful of short-term remedies are put into place.

Mr. Slater said plans include better information about flight delays and cancellations and an immediate task-force study about the quality of airline service.

But he acknowledged that industry and transportation officials still must find long-term solutions to problems besetting an airline system at times overwhelmed by an increasing number of passengers.

Mr. Slater and Federal Aviation Administration director Jane Garvey met for nearly three hours with representatives from nine major airlines and the unions representing their employees.

"The priority in our discussion was a focus on customers and customer service," Mr. Slater said.

Airline executives acknowledged after the meeting that they could improve some services.

"I do think the point that we could do a better job of getting information [about delays] to the customer to our people first, and then to the customer is true," said Donald J. Carty, chairman and president of American Airlines.

The industry has had trouble this year meeting an overwhelming demand. The FAA reported more than 44,000 flight delays in July alone.

Severe weather and labor problems at United Airlines have caused some of those delays.

But a massive escalation in consumer demand has added pressure on the airline and air-traffic-control systems. The number of airline passengers is expected to reach 670 million this year. That's up from 635 million last year and 278 million from 1978.

An estimated 1 billion people will travel on planes annually within 10 years, Mr. Slater said.

"One thing we acknowledged at the beginning [of the meeting] is that no one could have anticipated in 1993 that this industry would be doing as well as it's doing today," Mr. Slater said. "No one could have anticipated that we would have the strains on the system that we now face."

Mr. Slater said some problems will ease as the busy summer travel season concludes.

To help find a solution and improve service, Mr. Slater said, the Transportation Department will organize a task force to study the quality of airline service. The group must report its findings to him in 90 days.

In addition, Mr. Slater said, the airlines agreed to improve notification to the FAA when they have flight delays or cancellations.

"This will enable air-traffic-controllers to seize the opportunity to use all available airspace," he said.

Mr. Carty said passing on information about flight changes to customers is difficult.

"That's a very, very significant logistical challenge," he said. "I can assure you, on behalf of the 100,000 employees at American Airlines, and on behalf of most airline employees, they don't want to give customers erroneous information. It doesn't mean they don't. It means that when they do it, they do it by mistake."

Mrs. Garvey said the FAA will search for ways to better move airplanes at seven crowded airports, including Washington Dulles International Airport. Those changes, she said, will include improved use of airspace.

All the so-called "choke points" are east of the Mississippi River.

"If it breaks down there [at the choke points], the system breaks down," she said.

But transportation officials said the air-traffic-control system needs long-term modernization in order to fully improve the airline, airport and air-traffic systems.

Mr. Slater didn't endorse a passengers' bill of rights.

He said he will meet later this week with smaller regional carriers and consumer advocates to continue the discussion of improving airline service.

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