With an unprecedented number of travelers now
on the move, airline complaints are increasing, passengers are
demanding more rights, and members of Congress are listening.
Whether it's oversold flights, frequent flier miles they can't
redeem or travelers being trapped aboard snowbound planes,
passengers and their supporters want customer service to be more of
a concern for airlines.
"The real point is to make sure that the airlines bring some of
their creativity and extraordinary entrepreneurial skill into
making sure that the passengers who use their service get through
it without feeling like a dish rag," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
He and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have written a bill that would
give passengers 48 hours to cancel tickets that are currently
nonrefundable. Among other things, the bill would also require
airlines to explain why flights are delayed and tell frequent
fliers how many seats are available if they want to cash in their
"Airlines got freedom with deregulation, and frankly a lot of
them exploited that freedom unfairly," Wyden explained. "It seems
to me you have a situation where airline profits are going through
the roof and passenger service is being left at the gate."
Airlines, and even some pro-traveler groups, beg to differ.
"We as airline passengers keep telling airlines what we want is
low fares, low fares, low fares," said David Stempler, president
of the Air Travelers Association, a group that serves passengers
and tries to expand air service.
"If you start mucking around with that system that has a very
delicate balance, it's possible fares will go up for everybody."
While there are signs that airline profits may have peaked, the
numbers still show that this is a gold-plated era for the industry.
Major U.S. carriers posted net profits of $5.1 billion last
year, down just slightly from their all-time record of $5.2 billion
in 1997. United Airlines, the nation's largest carrier, alone had
net earnings of $1.34 billion.
Collectively, U.S. airlines also carried an estimated 615
million passengers in 1998, filling their planes to near capacity.
US Airways ended the year with a record average of 72.7 percent
of its seats filled. With so-called load factors so high, there are
few seats between passengers, little extra room for standbys and
almost no margin for relief when a flight is canceled and
passengers have to be rebooked.
The effects are being felt across the system. Transportation
Department reported Tuesday that passengers filed 9,606 service
complaints with the department in 1998, not in itself a huge
number, but 25 percent more than in 1997.
At the same time, airlines posted a mishandled baggage rate of
5.16 complaints per 1,000 passengers, compared with 4.96 per 1,000
Robert Jarvis, a law professor and author of Travel Law: Cases
and Materials, a textbook on passenger issues, said airlines can
afford to be rough with passengers because competition has fallen
since the industry was deregulated in 1978.
He said that's partly to blame for the increase in stories about
"You're packing more people into planes, you're giving them
less service and what you're giving them is not very friendly
service," Jarvis said. "What you've done is create an environment
for unruly behavior."
United has been the most blunt among the major carriers in
acknowledging the current problems. Its ads no longer brag about
whisking customers through the "friendly skies;" rather, they
make the more modest claim that United's service is "rising."
That means trying to improve on-time performance by giving extra
time between connecting flights. It also means making passengers
more comfortable with new planes, cushier seats and individual
"We do try to be responsive to the traveling public," said
United spokesman Joe Hopkins. "We are a transportation business,
but we're also a service business. And we try to focus on that with
all our employees."