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 Recent Stories
   Travel Agents Propose Bill of Rights for Fliers
 
As Complaints Increase, Airline
Passenger Rights Movement Grows

By Glen Johnson  Associated Press
WASHINGTON — 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 miles.

"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 in 1997.

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 unruly passengers.

"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 video screens.

"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."

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