- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2000

Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, yesterday introduced legislation to force the nation's airlines to improve customer service and lower ticket fares.

The bill addresses complaints that have been circulating in Congress for months and comes after two reports from the Department of Transportation that show the industry has not delivered on its promise of better customer service.

Mr. Reid called the industry's efforts "a sham," saying airline travel has become increasingly unpleasant and stressful.

"Anyone who flies knows that airports are crowded, flights are too often delayed or canceled without adequate explanation, ticket prices are unpredictable and unnecessarily complex and passengers are more unruly and occasionally violent," he said. "Since the airlines pledged to improve their service, passenger complaints have actually risen."

A preliminary report compiled by the DOT inspector general at the request of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee found that consumer complaints against air carriers had jumped 74 percent in the first four months of this year.

The report acknowledged that the industry is trying to improve, but said it has a long way to go before customer complaints begin to recede.

Because Mr. Reid's legislation was distributed only to members of the Senate committee yesterday, it is not clear what kind of support it will find.

One supporter is Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, who first got involved in the issue in February when he co-sponsored the "Air Traveler's Bill of Rights" with Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the committee.

"I think it's a great boost to have someone with Senator Reid's influence involved," Mr. Wyden said. "As far as I am concerned, Senator Reid and I are on the same flight."

An official in Mr. McCain's office said yesterday that the senator would consider legislation in December, when the Office of Inspector General releases a complete report of service in the airline industry. The committee commissioned the report in December, when the passenger's bill of rights measure was dropped because air carriers promised they would clean up their act.

"The reality is that since the airlines made their big voluntary pledges, complaints are way up and service is down," Mr. Wyden said. "What we are asking for here is basically access to timely information. We are not calling for constitutional rights to fluffy pillows but you ought to give people accurate information."

Because of the complex way airlines price their tickets, a passenger may get a better deal by purchasing a ticket to a different destination and getting off the plane during a layover at the intended destination, leaving the second portion of the ticket unused, rather than buying a ticket directly to the intended destination. Mr. Reid's bill would allow passengers to mix and match portions of tickets to get the cheaper flight.

Under the bill, airlines would have to provide adequate and timely explanations for flight delays and cancellations. Also, travelers would be allowed to exit an airplane grounded at a gate for an hour if the captain has not said that the aircraft is cleared to depart in 15 minutes.

The bill also calls for medical care, as well as the establishment of an independent commission to study airline pricing practices.

Like last year's proposed passengers' bill of rights, the legislation asks airlines to explain why flights are delayed or canceled. One big difference is that the earlier bill required airlines to give passengers 48 hours to cancel nonrefundable tickets, while the new one does not.

Paul Ruden, senior vice president of legal and industry affairs at the American Society of Travel Agents, and Mark Silverberg, co-director of the Washington office of the Consumer Union, expressed support for the bill at a press conference yesterday.

"Enough is enough," said Mr. Ruden. "It's time, we believe, for legislation."

Meanwhile, a separate annual report issued last month by DOT shows yet another increase in complaints. Between May 1999 and May 2000, 1,239 complaints were registered against the top 10 U.S. carriers, up from 1,151 the previous year.

The most complaints in that period were against America West Airlines and United Airlines; the year before American Airlines and Trans World Airlines had the most complaints.

Low-fare carrier Southwest Airlines had the fewest complaints both years. Arlington-based US Airways which is awaiting regulatory approval to merge with United had fewer complaints this year than the last, decreasing to 1.63 complaints per 100,000 trips from 2.74 the previous year.

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