- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

A Transportation Department report released yesterday gave the airlines poor grades for flight delays and lost baggage, renewing calls in Congress for more legislative oversight of the industry.
The Transportation inspector general's report said that although some customer services improved over the past year, more than a quarter of flights were delayed, canceled or diverted.
The report suggests airlines have not fulfilled their promises to the Senate Commerce Committee last summer to improve service.
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is chairman of the Commerce Committee, has scheduled a hearing for today to review the inspector general's report.
Last summer, the committee agreed to let the airline industry try to improve service on its own, without legislation. But the panel said that if the inspector general's report did not show improvement, it would consider legislative action.
The inspector general said the grace period given airlines resulted in some noticeable improvements.
"The voluntary commitment to customer service and the circumstances under which it was entered into are noteworthy because, based on our observations, it prompted the airlines to take the matter of improving customer service more seriously," the report said.
Improvements were demonstrated in quoting lowest fares available, holding nonrefundable reservations, paying for lost luggage and meeting passenger needs during long delays.
However, the success was limited.
"We continue to find significant shortfalls in reliable and timely communication with passengers by the airlines about flight delays and cancellations," the report said. "Further, we find the airlines' commitment does not directly address the most deep-seated, underlying cause of customer dissatisfaction flight delays and cancellations, and what the airlines plan to do about them in the areas under their control in the immediate term."
An hour after the report was released, Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, proposed revisions to his "Passenger Bill of Rights" that would include fines against airlines for poor customer service. Mr. Wyden is a member of the Commerce Committee's aviation subcommittee.
"My feeling is that if the airlines don't wake up, they're going to find members of Congress calling for things that really are a burden," Mr. Wyden said.
He said that in some cases, airlines knowingly schedule more flights than they can deliver on time, resulting in delays even during fair weather.
"They know they can't meet their obligations with respect to schedules," Mr. Wyden said. "Where there is a track record of extensive delays, you should tell people. Nobody's calling for a legal right to a jumbo bag of peanuts here."
He proposed his Passenger Bill of Rights in 1999, but Congress did not approve it. The revisions he described yesterday would give the Transportation Department the right to fine airlines for "unfair, deceptive practices," such as not telling passengers when flights would be delayed, canceled or diverted.
If the Commerce Committee approves Mr. Wyden's revisions, he hopes to propose them as a bill before Congress. "I'm hoping we can get this bill to the president in a few months," Mr. Wyden said.
Mr. McCain said the inspector general's report shows a need for new legislation. Among witnesses scheduled to testify at the hearing today is Inspector General Kenneth Mead.
"It is my intention to introduce legislation based on the recommendations made by Mead," Mr. McCain said. The bill would include provisions ensuring that consumers have information about delayed flights, increasing the minimum compensation for involuntarily bumped passengers, and making sure the airlines clearly explain how passengers who are delayed overnight will be treated.
Airline executives focused on improvements noted in the report, such as more legroom and baggage space as well as faster responses to customer complaints. They also said many of the problems listed could be blamed on inadequate infrastructure.
The Air Transport Association, a group that represents 14 major airlines, said in a statement that the inspector general's report was "fair and reasonable" and "provides a useful blueprint for continued action to improve customer service."
However, association officials also have said more runways must be built and the nation's air traffic control system must be improved to fulfill the government's demands for better performance.
"A meaningful impact on the issues that most affect customer satisfaction in this industry can only be attained through an integrated approach with the [Federal Aviation Administration] that addresses capacity and infrastructure issues," United Airlines President Rono Dutta said.

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