- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2000

Consumer complaints about poor treatment by major airlines continue to rise despite industry efforts to clean up its act, according to a long-awaited Department of Transportation report released yesterday.

Major airlines, hoping to fend off threats of federal intervention, vowed six months ago to take steps to improve customer satisfaction with more information, more legroom and greater control over cancellations and other means.

But a half-year after the industry began its voluntary improvements, federal investigators say air travel has gotten worse and that airlines should do more.

The preliminary report, compiled by the agency's Office of Inspector General at the request of Congress, found that consumer complaints against U.S. air carriers more than doubled from 1998 to 1999. And in the first four months of this year, consumer complaints jumped 74 percent.

Delayed flights have increased 50 percent in the last five years, and canceled flights have soared 68 percent in that same time.

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

"In our initial observations and testing, we found the airlines are making a clear and genuine effort at strengthening the attention paid to customer service, but bottom-line results to date are mixed, and the airlines have a ways to go to restore customer confidence," the report said.

Lawmakers warned yesterday that if service doesn't improve by the end of the year, Congress will move forward with legislation to force the industry to clean up its act.

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, who will hold a hearing today on airline customer service, said while the report is preliminary, the mixed results raise many concerns.

"As I said last year, I want and expect the airline customer service commitment to succeed," the Arizona Republican said.

"But if the airlines' voluntary effort falls short, I am committed to moving forward on additional, enforceable passenger-fairness legislation," he said, adding that the inspector general's December report will weigh heavily on Congress' decision regarding a future course of action.

Congressional calls for a "passengers' bill of rights" to force industry improvements stemmed partly from an incident in Detroit in January 1999 when hundreds of passengers were stuck in planes on snowy runways for up to 8 and 1/2 hours.

While industry leaders tend to blame service problems on bad weather and the nation's air-traffic-control system, the delays have as much to do with increasing air traffic as the strong economy encourages more Americans to fly.

Hoping to dissuade Congress from stepping in, major airlines last year instituted a 12-point plan to, among other measures, offer the lowest possible fares, deliver bags on time, provide prompt refunds and handle bumped passengers with fairness.

The inspector general's report noted, however, that only two of the 12 commitments were new policy. It said also that the commitment "does not directly address underlying reasons for customer dissatisfaction, such as extensive flight delays, baggage not showing up on arrival, long check-in lines and high fares in certain markets.

"In our opinion, until these areas also are effectively addressed by the airlines, [the Federal Aviation Administration] and others, there will continue to be discontent among air travelers," the report said.

The Air Transport Association, which represents the major airlines and spearheaded the service-improvement plan, said it has spent $3 billion to implement the plan and train employees about the changes.

"But it will not happen overnight," group President Carol Hallett said. "The delays will continue. The weather will always be a part of everyday flying experiences."

But she added, "I think it's fair to say we are doing our best to improve customer service."

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a passengers-rights group, said he thinks the airlines are improving, but that the industry is a victim of its own success.

He doubts, however, that lawmakers can improve matters.

"Congress can't really legislate to force airlines to provide good customer service," Mr. Stempler said. "But I think the threat of trying to intercede caused the airlines to come to their senses. They had to change the way they were doing things."

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