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Annual Airline Quality Survey
Finds Things Getting Worse

By Randolph E. Schmid   Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Airlines did not live up to their promise of improved service in 1999, with all measures except baggage handling worsening and passengers continuing to complain in record numbers, university researchers report in an annual study of airline quality.

The industry in December developed a passenger bill of rights, prompted in part by those complaints and efforts in Congress to require improvement.

"There was a slight improvement in baggage handling. Other than that, all the other measurements got worse. So, overall, things are a little bit worse than they were before and they are slipping in the wrong direction," Dean Headley of Wichita State University said.

He credited the airline industry with trying to do better, but added in a telephone interview that "it's not registering with the consumer because they are still complaining in record numbers."

Headley and Brent Bowen of the University of Nebraska at Omaha do the annual study of airline quality, ranking the carriers on such things as on-time performance, bumpings, mishandled baggage and passenger complaints.

Southwest Airlines rated best last year, reclaiming the spot it held in 1997. U.S. Airways, No. 1 last year, fell to sixth place.

The industry overall scored worse last year than it had the year before, with consumer complaints jumping 130 percent.

"I think we are to a point where some type of reregulation is going to be necessary," said Bowen.

In the overall rankings, Continental finished second, followed by Delta, Northwest and Alaska Airlines. US Airways was No. 6, followed by American, America West, TWA and United.

The Department of Transportation also tracks airline performance. Its report for February showed the 10 largest carriers posted a 74.8 percent on-time record. That was better than January's 73.7 percent but not as good as February 1999's 78.9 percent.

The airlines had a mishandled baggage rate of 4.81 reports per 1,000 passengers in February, better than both January's 5.56 rate and February 1999's 5.05.

Consumers registered 1,999 complaints about airline service with the department in February, slightly fewer than the 2,029 complaints in January but nearly double the 1,015 registered in February 1999.

Speaking of the new passenger bill of rights instituted by airlines late last year, Headley acknowledged change does take time. But, he added, the steps promised by the airlines were things they should have been doing already.

The carriers pledged to be more forthright with passengers all the way through their travel experience. They promised to volunteer the lowest airfares or cheaper travel options when people call for reservations and to give passengers at least 24 hours to cancel ticket purchases.

They also said they would update passengers at 15- to 20-minute intervals when there are delays.

The airlines acted after criticism following a New Year's storm in the Midwest that left thousands of travelers stranded. Some passengers got stuck on planes for hours and others had trouble learning when they might get home.

Congress got interested, but delayed legislation to allow the air carriers time to develop their own improvements.

Headley said Congress is expecting a report this summer on how well the airlines have done and at that point will decide whether to reintroduce legislation.

For 1998, US Airways jumped from worst to first in the professors' survey of major carriers. A year earlier Southwest Airlines placed first and US Airways was last among the 10 major carriers ranked.

The full ranking for 1998 was: US Airways, Continental Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, America West Airlines, TWA, Alaska Airlines, Northwest Airlines and United Airlines.

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