Report: Airlines' customer service better

Thursday, June 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Progress still needed, U.S. says; Carty calls the air traffic control system a hindrance

WASHINGTON – The nation's airlines got an interim report card Wednesday on their efforts to improve customer service: They have made some progress but still have plenty of work to do.

Chronic delays, lack of information, missing luggage and confusion about air fares were all addressed in a 12-point plan the airlines agreed on in December.

The airlines agreed to the plan after receiving a firestorm of complaints from customers and angry lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

"We found the airlines are making a clear and genuine effort at strengthening the attention paid to customer service, but bottom-line results are mixed and the airlines have a ways to go to restore customer confidence," said Kenneth Mead, the inspector general at the Transportation Department.

Although some airline executives agreed with the assessment that they could do better, they ascribed many problems to overcrowding at airports and an antiquated air traffic control system.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill said their patience was running out, despite pledges from carriers to redouble efforts to improve the way they treat fliers.

If the airlines do not make major strides in the next six months, Republicans and Democrats threatened, they will write legislation that would mandate customer service improvements.

The inspector general is scheduled to issue a final report at the end of the year.

"If the airlines' voluntary effort falls short, I am committed to moving forward on additional, enforceable passenger fairness legislation," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

And Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a harsh critic of the airlines, charged that a majority of airlines are not fully disclosing to passengers their lowest fares.

"The bottom line is: We will not get this job done until we pass a bill with teeth in it," he said.

Donald Carty, the chief executive of AMR Corp., acknowledged that congressional pressure has forced the airline industry to improve. But he warned that some service problems may only get worse because airports are overcrowded and the government's air traffic system is inadequate.

"I am quite pessimistic about the ability of the air traffic control system to keep up with the traffic stimulated by the deregulation of the industry," said Mr. Carty, who represented AMR's American Airlines Inc., as well as the industry trade group, the Air Transport Association.

Although the airlines could do better, Mr. Carty said, space at airports and the air traffic control system are buckling under passenger loads that are only expected to grow.

"When something goes wrong, there are more people who miss connections, more bags to transfer, fewer seats on other flights to carry people who missed planes and fewer facilities at airports to feed and house stranded passengers," he said.

The inspector general's report said customer complaints filed with the department continue to rise. In 1999, the department said, complaints more than doubled over the previous year to 17,381. And complaints for the first four months of this year are up 74 percent to 6,916, compared with the same period a year ago.

"They signal a high degree of consumer dissatisfaction with air carrier service that must be addressed," Mr. Mead, the inspector general, said.

He said the airlines had improved but could do much better in informing travelers about delays and cancellations. He also criticized the airlines' policies for finding lost luggage and said less than half had contingency plans for handling onboard delays.

Mr. Mead said the airlines are doing a better job of disclosing their lowest fares, although there was room for improvement.

Some lawmakers wanted the carriers to take the extra step of telling customers about even lower fares that might be available on their Web sites.

The inspector general, as well as airline executives, noted that the carriers have taken steps to improve service that were not required in their 12-point plan. For instance, American and other airlines have increased legroom and improved emergency medical equipment.

And Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. used five mural-size computer screens to show technological improvements it has made for handling reservations and providing travelers information at airports.

Even so, lawmakers were quick to detail their own bad experiences as they lectured Mr. Carty and other industry representatives about doing better.

"I am beginning to lose confidence," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "This happens to people all across this country, and they are tired of being lied to."

Lawmakers and the inspector general said the airlines were too quick to blame the air traffic control system for delays and did not keep customers informed. For instance, Mr. Mead said, the carriers frequently leave a gate so they can claim that they made an on-time departure and detain passengers on the ground for hours.

"Several airlines pointed to the air traffic control system as the reason for delays, even in cases of extremely bad weather, crew unavailability or maintenance problems," Mr. Mead said.

Noting that his own American flight to Washington was delayed for three hours and 20 minutes, Mr. Carty said, the airlines often cannot get reliable information from air traffic controllers to pass onto customers.

During his delay, Mr. Carty said, he made about four unsuccessful calls to frustrated American ground crews to find out when his flight might take off.

"The problem is that the system is [running] at capacity," Mr. Carty said.

The pilot on Mr. Carty's flight provided regular updates even though information was limited, Mr. Carty said. But Mr. McCain said that practice is unusual.

"I fly every weekend," he said, "and very rarely do you get pilots coming up every 15 minutes to tell us what is going on."

Mr. Carty denied that airlines are pushing back from airport gates early to say that they departed on time. But the inspector general said taxi-out times exceeding one hour at the 28 largest airports increased 130 percent between 1995 and 1999.

"When you tell airline passengers you've had an on-time departure and you've been sitting on the runway for two hours, that is absurd," Mr. Mead said.