Federal report gives mixed reviews to airline service efforts
(CNN) -- Have the airlines improved service in the last six months? Cut down on flight delays? Reduced numbers of lost luggage?
The answers, according to an interim report issued by the United States Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General, vary as widely as the questions. Six months after customer service initiatives went into effect, the OIG reported Tuesday, carriers have made progress and fell victim to some old pitfalls.
"We found the airlines are making a clear and genuine effort at strengthening the attention paid to customer service," the report stated, "but bottom-line results to date are mixed, and the airlines have a ways to go to restore customer confidence."
Under their voluntary 12-point plans adopted in December, major U.S. airlines pledged to respond to complaints faster, provide on-time baggage delivery, increase the baggage liability limit to $2,500 per bag, offer the lowest fares available and give more information on delays and cancellations.
On-time baggage delivery was especially ripe for improvement, the OIG determined. Airlines promised to make every reasonable effort to return checked bags within 24 hours, the OIG noted. But the carriers did not uniformly define when the 24 hours should begin, the report said.
The report also urged airlines to clarify and coordinate their plans in case of extended on-board delays so that customers would be provided with ample food and restrooms.
Airline organization cites improvement
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The report proves airlines are working hard to get better, said the Air Transport Association, which held a news conference earlier Tuesday to tout improvements among carriers. Carriers are well on their way to achieving their goals, ATA President and CEO Carol Hallett said.
"The airlines are working very hard to meet their commitment," said Hallet, who heads an organization representing the major airlines. "While nothing is perfect, it took us many years to build the outstanding safety record that we have today, and we hope that we will be able to meet the highest levels of customer satisfaction in a shorter period of time."
Airlines are currently responsible for monitoring the success of the plan, but OIG officials also have been keeping tabs.
It started a Web site that asks passengers for feedback on problems such as finding lowest airfares and dealing with overbooked flights. The department also has a site dedicated to general air travel service problems.
Has there been a noticeable change in service in the past six months?
"Most business travelers would tell you the answer is 'sort of,'" said Chris McGinnis, an industry analyst and manager of travelskills.com. "But for the most part, people would say 'no.'"
That may change during the summer travel season, he said, when there's a bigger mix of leisure and business travelers, more delays and hotter weather.
"It really hasn't made an impact," said Chad Ulery, spokesman for PassengerRights.com and managing editor of Travel Confidential magazine. "The plan is essentially a smokescreen to keep government from getting involved."
The airlines are still overbooking flights by up to 20 percent, Ulery said. They don't have enough staff to take care of the new routes, he added, and make it difficult for travelers to get reimbursed for lost luggage.
But carriers point to recent strides in technology that provide better customer service -- Internet-based flight information, cell phones, PalmPilots and airport kiosks that offer services, to name a few. Some kiosks also allow passengers to make reservations, print boarding passes and check baggage, they note.
"Some carriers have removed seats to provide more leg room," Hallett added. "Others have deployed mobile chariots (handheld reservation and ticketing devices) in order to reduce lines. We have others that have formed special task forces to deal not only with delays, but also cancellations."
She also called on the Federal Aviation Administration to update air-traffic control equipment to cut down on flight delays.
"One of our highest priorities is pursuing the effort to see an increase and a rapid increase in the modernization of the air traffic control system," Hallett said.
OIG discouraged the airlines and federal authorities from blaming each other for delays. "Both the airlines and FAA must move beyond finger-pointing and work toward greater cooperation," it said in the report.
The office plans to release a one-year assessment of the airlines' customer service plans in December.
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