Airlines Get User-Friendly
The overall perception of airline service has been
declining steadily in the United States. Department of Transportation (DOT)
statistics show air travel complaints have skyrocketed this past
year, up 169 percent in July from the previous year. What’s going
on? Is flying that horrible?
Our strong economy enables more people to fly, meaning
longer lines and overcrowding. Air travel is no longer the oasis of
civility that it was 10 years ago. Let’s face it – more people mean
more problems. Airlines have finally succumbed to the real-world
pressures of mass transit. Their lack of dealing with the pressures
in a timely matter has finally provoked public outcry.
This past winter, air travel got really ugly. As you
may recall, December brought a fiasco in Detroit involving Northwest
Airlines when passengers were trapped inside an airplane for 9 hours
during a winter storm. While this particular incident was more the
exception rather than the rule, it ignited the passenger rights
Capitol Hill was besieged with constituent complaints,
which demanded that something be done. In May, Rep. Bud Shuster
(R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, introduced
the Air Passenger Bill of Rights. Then in June, Senator John McCain
(R., Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, introduced a
similar comprehensive passenger-rights bill in the Senate. Political
pressure is clearly on the airlines to either begin correcting the
problems or to let Congress address the problems themselves.
While the passenger-rights proposals were well
meaning, some of the proposed rules were clearly not practical from
an airline operations standpoint. Earlier this month, the Air Transport Association
(ATA), the trade association for 23 U.S. and five foreign
carriers, issued their version of a passenger-rights initiative
called “Customers First.” It will go into effect on December 17.
Under the Customer First proposal, airlines must:
- Inform passengers of the lowest fare available. Each airline
will quote the lowest available fare for which the customer is
eligible for the flight and class of service requested.
- Notify customers of known delays, cancellations and
diversions. Each airline will establish and implement policies and
procedures for notifying customers in a timely manner at the
airport and aboard their affected aircraft regarding delays,
diversions and cancellations.
- Assign a customer-service representative responsible for
handling passenger complaints and ensuring that all written
complaints are responded to within 60 days
- Increase baggage-liability limits. Airlines will petition the
Transportation Department within 30 days for an increase in the
current baggage liability limit of $1,250 per bag.
- Meet customers' essential needs. During long on-aircraft
delays, airlines will make every reasonable effort to provide
food, water, restroom facilities and access to medical treatment
for on-board passengers who are on the ground for an extended
period without access to the terminal.
- Disclosure. Each airline will make available the following to
their customers: cancellation policies resulting from failure to
use each flight coupon; rules, restrictions and an annual report
on frequent-flyer programs; and, upon request, information
regarding airline seat size and pitch.
- Airlines will have six months to make sure they are in
compliance with the plan. In addition, airlines must ensure
passengers have access to individual customer-service plans. As a
result, airlines will be required to make their customer-service
plans available on their Web sites, on-request at the airport and
ticket offices, and at travel and reservation agents.
The Senate Commerce Committee backed the ATA’s
voluntary proposal as a positive step. Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.),
however, warned that if airlines failed to keep up their part of the
bargain, Congress would then revisit the issue. During the proposal
unveiling, the ATA shot back at the government to make changes of
its own, stating that the industry is now trying to do its part, and
expects the federal government to repair the air traffic control
system to cut down on delays, which have worsened this past summer.
Airlines contend consumer complaints are up because of these delays.
The government says they are working on improvements.
So what does all this mean to you? Plenty.
Airlines will be providing some very interesting new
services. For instance, United
Airlines will deploy battery-powered "chariots" at its Chicago,
Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver and Washington Dulles hubs which
can be pushed into service during flight disruptions to change
passenger tickets and offer other services. In addition, United said
it will put customer service attendants at baggage claim areas with
hand-held computer devices, similar to the ones used by FedEx and
UPS, which will let a customer know exactly where a piece of delayed
luggage is and when it will arrive.
said it will make announcements every 15 to 20 minutes on delays,
cancellations and diversions, both at the gate and on board the
aircraft. Northwest Airlines said
it would have an event recovery plan, which ensures passengers will
not be held on-board an aircraft for more than one hour in the event
of an in-bound flight delay
Airlines know the complaints are real and clearly know
the consequences of not complying with the new procedures. In a CNN
interview, Delta Air Lines
CEO Leo Mullin said, "quality and consistency of service must
improve or we won’t get a second chance to self-regulate."
Air Transport Association http://www.air-transport.org/
American Airlines Customer Service Plan http://aa.com/
Continental Airlines Customer First Plan http://www.continental.com/dash/build_dash.asp?service_06
Delta Air Lines Customer Service Plan http://www.delta-air.com/gateway/about/cusserv/index.html
Department of Transportation http://www.dot.gov/
Federal Aviation Administration http://www.faa.gov/
Northwest's Customer Service Plan http://www.nwa.com/plan/letter.html
TWA Customer Service Commitment http://www.twa.com/about_twa/at_custserv.html
US Airways 12- Point Customer Commitment http://www.usairways.com/company/news/nw_99_0915.htm
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