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Airlines detail customer service plans amid continuing criticism

Updated:
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A "passenger bill of rights" that airlines
promised travelers earlier this year would lack legal backing and
include some things already required by law, according to new
congressional studies.

Airlines contend they are taking seriously the complaints that
led to the promises, and they said detailed plans being announced
Wednesday will commit them to better passenger service.

"We're doing all this very publicly. I don't know how much more
of a commitment we can make," said David Fuscus, spokesman for the
Air Transport Association, a trade group representing the major
airlines.

The airlines' action toward soothing passengers followed
complaints prompted by a New Year's storm in the Midwest that left
thousands of travelers stranded in airports and on aircraft.
Congress threatened new legislation against the industry, which was
removed from federal control in 1978.

In June, the ATA and its members offered a voluntary plan to
improve service. Among the dozen promises: ensuring that passengers
are told of the lowest available ticket price; notifying them of
delays and cancellations; providing prompt ticket refunds; handling
bumped passengers with fairness; and meeting customers' essential
needs during long on-aircraft delays.

The airlines also pledged to detail how they would fulfill those
promises by Sept. 15 and implement their new code of conduct by
Dec. 15.

In a report released this week, the General Accounting Office --
the investigative arm of Congress -- said the ATA's "Customer
Service Commitment" was largely a rehash of existing law or
aviation policy.

"Several of these measures," including fairly handling bumped
passengers, ensuring customer service from an airline's code-share
partners, providing prompt ticket refunds, accommodating special
needs passengers and providing passengers with information on
airline policies and aircraft configuration, "reflect what is in
the statutes and regulations," the agency wrote.

The GAO said that other promises are not included in the
airlines' existing "contract of carriage," the fine print on the
back of airline tickets or ticket jackets that forms the contract
between an airline and its passenger.

In a separate report, the Congressional Research Service, a
researching agency available to congressional members, said the
voluntary standards "may lack the enforceability that the
conditions of the `contract of carriage' may possess."

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who commissioned the studies, called the
Customer Service Commitment "nothing but legalistic gobbledygook,
which (does) nothing to protect passengers." He said the reports
are "a real wake-up call showing how little protection the
consumer really has."

Fuscus disputed that, saying: "Whether it's in the contracts of
carriage or not, it won't matter to the traveling public, because
we're going to do these things."

Dave Messing, a spokesman for Continental Airlines, said the
carrier's plan will emphasize better communication with its 140,000
daily travelers.

"Communication is important because it helps travelers know
what to expect," he said. "People want information about what
they should expect from their trip and if something doesn't go as
planned, they want information about what we're going to do to help
them with their difficulty."

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