- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2007

COX NEWS SERVICE

Airlines have not kept their promises to protect passengers from travel horrors, so Congress may need to set federal standards for customer service, the top Transportation Department investigator told a House subcommittee yesterday.

During the first two months of 2007, nearly one-third of commercial flights were delayed, canceled or diverted, testified Calvin Scovel, the department’s inspector general.

Some flights leave late so often that just advertising their departure time may “constitute a deceptive business practice,” Mr. Scovel told the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee.

In February, for instance, US Airways Flight 154 from Philadelphia to San Francisco was late 100 percent of the time, and JetBlue Airways Flight 76 from West Palm Beach, Fla., to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport was late 96 percent of the time.

Even after such well-publicized inconveniences as the flight delay in Austin, Texas, that left passengers stuck on a runway for nine hours in an American Airlines jet, some airlines have not defined what constitutes an “extended period of time” for meeting the needs of onboard customers, Mr. Scovel said. Others have set limits ranging from one to five hours, he said.

“We think it is unlikely that a passenger’s definition of an extended period of time will vary depending upon which airline they are flying,” Mr. Scovel said.

After an earlier outcry from passengers stuck for hours on a snowbound plane in Chicago, airlines said legislation was not needed and they would solve the problems themselves, he noted.

“Given the problems that customers continue to face with airline customer service, Congress may want to consider making [consumer customer service standards] mandatory for all airlines,” he said.

Airline industry officials told the panel that legislation is not needed. Most of the problems are caused by weather, they said, and federal mandates would create more problems than they solve.

“I don’t think Congress can legislate good weather or the best way to respond to bad weather,” said James May, president of the Air Transport Association of America, the main trade group.

Even though JetBlue has adopted a voluntary “customer bill of rights,” the airline’s chief executive officer testified against the government imposing such standards. “The best intentions can have bad consequences,” said David Neeleman, cautioning that what works for one airline or at one airport might not work at others.

But several committee members said their patience was exhausted in waiting for voluntary measures to work.

“Unless the industry addresses this and addresses it now, there is going to be legislative action,” warned Rep. Jerry F. Costello, Illinois Democrat and the subcommittee chairman.

Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat, predicted Congress will “set a floor for customer protection” that would mandate at least a minimum standard of treatment for airline passengers.

Mr. Scovel, who has been leading an investigation of airline treatment of customers, criticized the Transportation Department as well as the carriers. While the agency has made progress in civil rights enforcement, “it needs to improve its oversight of consumer protection laws,” he said.

The economics of the industry has contributed to customer complaints, he said. To cut costs and fill seats, the industry reduced its scheduled flight capacity from 8.1 million seats in 2000 to 7.6 million in 2006, he said. Meanwhile, more people were flying.

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