- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2000

United Airlines officials said yesterday their 12-point customer-service plan is making steady progress in regaining consumer confidence after labor and service problems this past summer caused the nation's largest airline to cancel thousands of flights.

United's reports of improvements come amid threats by Congress to intervene unless airline delays, cancellations and customer complaints are reduced. United and other major airlines are trying to beat a mid-December deadline for improving service.

The report on improved customer service came yesterday as the airline blamed its mechanics, who want a new contract, for flight cancellations this week.

The airline's plan was implemented almost a year ago. It includes use of new technology for tracking baggage, a toll-free telephone line for reporting service problems, improved flight and passenger scheduling software and more training for customer-service representatives. Instead of offering only the lowest fare available through its reservations department, United now also refers customers to Internet discounts.

At a Washington news conference yesterday, United officials said their surveys of customers indicate the plan is reaching its goal.

"We feel we have a strong set of commitments in place that lay the framework for meeting customers' needs for going forward," said United spokesman Andy Plews. "We want people to know we have a strong commitment to customer service."

The Department of Transportation verified at least some claims of improvement by United and other airlines.

"It was not just United doing better," said Bill Mosley, Transportation Department spokesman. "There were fewer complaints overall" in recent months.

Each of the 12 points in United's plan is taken from a Department of Transportation inspector general's preliminary report in June citing areas in which airlines needed to improve. A final report is scheduled for Dec. 15.

The preliminary report cited serious shortcomings. Among its findings, it said airlines failed to offer customers the lowest fares available, to notify customers of delays before they arrive at airports, to deliver baggage promptly and to give ticket refunds within a reasonable period.

When the preliminary report was issued, United was struggling with its pilots over a labor contract. At the time, the airline was operating near capacity. However, the pilots refused to work overtime, creating delays and cancellations.

"We had a very tough summer," said Mark Anderson, United's senior director of affairs. "We were canceling up to 200 flights per day." Rainy weather contributed to cancellations and delays of the 2,270 flights United operates each day.

The airline reached a contract agreement with the pilots at the end of August. Benefits of the pact showed up in Transportation Department statistics. In July, only 41.7 percent of United's flights were on time, the statistics indicated. Last month, the rate improved to 71.8 percent.

However, some labor problems remain. United blamed "illegal job actions" by mechanics for the need to cancel 99 flights Tuesday, more than twice as many as expected.

The number of aircraft removed from service for repairs rose in recent weeks, United said.

The union denied that its members were taking any organized job action. Talks between United and the International Association of Machinists, which represents about 15,000 mechanics at the carrier, broke down last week.

United's flight attendants said they might pass out leaflets next week at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport describing their complaints about their union's labor contract.

"United has some labor challenges," Mr. Plews said. "We've achieved a lot of progress with our pilots' contract. We are confident we will get the remaining issues behind us."

Mr. Anderson acknowledged that the update yesterday on service improvements was in anticipation of the inspector general's planned final report next month. The update was announced "so when this report comes out, you recognize that there is an ongoing effort to focus on customer service," he said.

If the final report indicates the service problems continue, Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Arizona Republican, has said he will begin hearings to determine a legislative remedy.

Pia Pialorsi, spokesman for the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said the inspector general's final report could have serious implications for airlines.

"We have to see where the airlines are falling short and assess it at that time," Miss Pialorsi said. "I can't say what the legislation will look like until we go through the normal legislative process."

"If the Department of Transportation comes back with a bad report, then McCain will move forward with legislation."

United's claims of service improvements are expected to be tested during the Thanksgiving weekend.

The Air Transport Association reported last week that it is expecting the Sunday after Thanksgiving to be the busiest day in aviation history. A record 2.2 million passengers are expected to occupy 85 percent of the seats available on U.S. air carriers Nov. 26.

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