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AIRLINES present new service improvements

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A toll-free number to check on lost baggage. Help for passengers forced to stay overnight because of canceled flights. New efforts to reduce the number of regularly delayed or canceled flights.

Just three ways the industry is trying to improve customer service, airline executives said Thursday.

The heads of 10 airlines joined lawmakers who deal with transportation issues in releasing a new list of ways the industry plans voluntarily to make flying more pleasurable.

``This has been accomplished without legislating,'' said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla, who heads the House Transportation aviation subcommittee. ``It demonstrates how government and industry can work together to improve service for the traveling public.''

Dozens of lawmakers, responding to constituent complaints about airline service, already have sponsored legislation to set standards in law for customer service and to boost competition.

When Congress considered similar legislation in 1999, the airlines and the Transportation Department agreed instead on a package of voluntary standards. DOT Inspector General Kenneth Mead reported in February that customer service had improved but still had a long way to go.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said Thursday's announcement tracks the renewed interest on Capitol Hill in legislating improvements.

``The timing of the two matters is intimately related,'' said Dingell, who has introduced a customer service bill. ``Legislation is urgently needed to see to it that we have competition, that we have good service, that we have accountability by the airlines.''

Some of the improvements promoted Thursday already were announced this year. They include:

_Making the airlines' voluntary service commitments a part of the legal contract with passengers.

_Telling passengers the lowest available fares when they buy their tickets by phone or at a ticket counter.

_Setting up a system to let passengers know if a flight is delayed before they leave for the airport.

_Ensuring that information on airport monitors is correct.

_Reducing the number of flights regularly delayed or canceled.

_Setting up a task force to study how airlines can help customers stranded overnight at an airport because their flight is canceled, delayed or diverted.

Airline executives cited the Transportation Department's latest monthly air travel consumer report, released Wednesday, which found that 79 percent of flights arrived on time in April, as compared to 75 percent a year earlier, and complaints dropped from 2,099 in April 2000 to 1,667 in April 2001.

``Everybody remains committed to improving customer service,'' American Airlines chairman Donald Carty said. ``A legislative approach is not going to make anyone work any harder.''

So far this year, about 20 bills have been introduced to regulate airlines, twice as many as those dealing with managed health care.

``The airline industry and its CEOs do themselves and their customers a disservice when they puff our their chests and say, `We should monitor ourselves,''' said Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., sponsor of three bills. ``Clearly, the past performance indicates otherwise. Before this summer is out, the industry itself will give us plenty of motivation to act.''

Consumer groups complained they had not been invited to meet with members of the House Transportation Committee.

``It's clear they only listen to the industry,'' said Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a group affiliated with consumer advocate Ralph Nader. ``They have no intention, unless they're forced to, of taking up passenger rights legislation.''

Airline executives said they fear a legislative approach could drive up fares by requiring the airlines to do the same things, rather than allowing them to offer different approaches to customer service.

``We are extremely concerned that if this legislation is passed, all of a sudden we're placed in some straitjacket that forces our fares to go up,'' said Herb Kelleher, chairman of Southwest Airlines, a low-fare carrier that is spending $30 million to redesign its seats to increase leg room.

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