Airline service continues to improve, even in wake of terror attacks, study finds

Monday, April 8th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Airlines' efforts to bring back passengers after the Sept. 11 attacks are being helped by more on-time arrivals, less luggage lost and fewer travelers being bumped, said a study released Monday.

The annual study by two professors found that customer service was improving even before the terrorist attacks, and continued as airlines scheduled fewer flights when business dropped off following the attacks.

``They were doing pretty good before they got to Sept. 11,'' said study co-author Dean Headley, an associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University. ``After Sept. 11, with a more rational system _ fewer passengers, fewer airplanes, fewer flights _ it worked better.''

Rather than canceled or delayed flights, passengers instead face increased security, sometimes being told to arrive two hours before their scheduled takeoff because of lines at screening checkpoints.

``The consumer may hold the airlines responsible for the problems they encounter,'' said the study's other co-author, Brent Bowen, director of the aviation institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. ``If we make it too difficult for the consumer to fly, that will have a negative impact on the industry.''

The report, funded by Wichita State and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, was released Monday at the National Press Club in Washington.

Based on data collected by the Transportation Department, the study found that last year:

_Flights of 11 carriers were on time 77.4 percent of the time, up from 72.6 percent in 2000.

_The Transportation Department received 2.11 complaints for every 100,000 passengers, a decline from 2.98 in 2000.

_For every 1,000 bags checked, airlines mishandled or lost 4.55, down from 5.29 in 2000.

_The rate of passengers being bumped from flights against their wishes dropped to 0.86 per 10,000 from 1.04 in 2001.

Alaska Airlines was rated highest for passenger service among the airlines surveyed. The airline finished second last year, behind Delta, which was rated fifth this year. TWA, which has since been taken over by American Airlines, was rated last. America West, which received the lowest rating in 2000, was rated seventh this year. All the airlines except Delta had higher overall scores than in 2000, the study said.

United Airlines spokeswoman Susana Leyva said the study shows that the airlines were serious when they promised to improve customer service.

``When you look at the experience on the ground, the experience in the air, we are moving in the right direction,'' she said. ``When certain lawmakers were looking at legislating customer service, the airlines said let a voluntary approach happen. You're seeing the benefits of that voluntary approach.''

With Congress considering legislation in 1999, the airlines and the Transportation Department instead agreed on a package of voluntary standards. Last year's airline quality study found no improvements, and lawmakers resumed talking about passing a bill aimed at improving customer service.

The issue quickly faded as the terrorist attacks changed the debate from airline service to security. With air travel still down, fewer passengers and fewer flights have reduced overcrowding, delays and complaints.

Passenger levels won't return to pre-Sept. 11 levels until next year, the Federal Aviation Administration said last month. Air travel is expected to increase steadily thereafter, it said.

Wichita State's Headley said the airlines need to prepare for the return of passengers.

``Unless they've learned from this pause, we're going to be right back where we were in another year or so,'' he said.