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Airlines Get User-Friendly

(September 1999)

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 revolution.

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.

US Airways 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."

Related Sites:

Air Transport Association

American Airlines Customer Service Plan

Continental Airlines Customer First Plan

Delta Air Lines Customer Service Plan

Department of Transportation

Federal Aviation Administration

Northwest's Customer Service Plan

TWA Customer Service Commitment

United Commitment

US Airways 12- Point Customer Commitment

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