Airline Complaints Are Skyrocketing

Wednesday, June 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Tired of airline delays? Lost luggage? Overbooked flights? You're not the only one.

Complaints about the American airline industry are skyrocketing this year even as air carriers try to live up to their promise to improve customer service, federal investigators say.

Airlines last year staved off legislative action by promising to treat customers better and to be more forthright with passengers all the way through their travel experience. When Transportation Department inspectors checked earlier this year to find out whether the airlines were living up to that pledge, they found varying degrees of success.

``Airlines are making a clear and genuine effort at strengthening the attention paid to customer service, but bottom-line results to date are mixed,'' the department's inspector general said in a preliminary report to Congress. ``The airlines have a way to go to restore consumer confidence.''

In fact, complaints were up 74 percent in the first four months of 2000 when compared with the same period in 1999 — 6,916 to 3,985. Delay complaints, the department's top complaint about airlines — were up 84 percent — 2,842 in the first four months of 2000, compared with 1,546 in the same period last year.

While the increase can be attributed to the Transportation Department's introduction of complaint filing over the Internet, that doesn't mean that there's not a problem.

``The air carriers receive 100 to 400 complaints for every complaint filed with the DOT,'' inspectors said.

Airlines are getting better at warning customers about delays and cancellations, inspectors found. However, they still aren't telling customers the truth about the delays, the report said.

``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,'' inspectors said. In fact, some airlines knew about delays as much as four hours beforehand but didn't tell passengers until they had boarded the plane and couldn't get back inside the airport, inspectors found.

Airlines are only six months into their pledge, and none of them were identified in the report.

The Senate Commerce Committee, which requested the report, lashed out at the airlines Wednesday. Many senators have to fly home out of Washington every weekend and recounted delays, lost luggage and lies about the departure times.

Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said he hasn't given up on the idea of passenger fairness legislation.

The inspector's report ``shows mixed success and raises many questions and concerns,'' McCain said. ``Unfortunately, the report indicates that the airlines still have a long way to go to make significant inroads on the customer service front.''

And ``if it doesn't happen, (legislation) is going to be our only recourse,'' added Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said his staff called an airline six minutes before he arrived at the airport and were assured that the plane for Boston was leaving on time. But when he arrived, there was a long line of stranded passengers at the ticket counters. ``Any dolt could tell you these planes were delayed for hours,'' he said.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said he thinks airlines won't follow their voluntary pledge and legislation will be necessary. ``The bottom line is we're not going to get this job done until we pass a bill with some teeth in it,'' Biden said.

In their pledge, the airlines promised to volunteer the lowest airfares or cheaper travel options when people call for reservations, to give passengers at least 24 hours to cancel ticket purchases and to find lost luggage within 24 hours. They also said they would update passengers at 15- to 20-minute intervals when there were delays.

Customers usually get the best price they're eligible for, but sometimes higher prices are charged when the ticket agent doesn't follow correct procedures, investigators said.

And while actually following their rule, airlines aren't telling people when the 24-hour clock starts on their efforts to find lost luggage and aren't telling people that they can get refunds if they cancel within 24 hours.

``The customer should not have to ask if this option is available,'' investigators said.

The Transportation Department will check airline service again before January.

``By December, the airlines will have had a full year in which to fully implement their plans,'' Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead said.