Report faults airlines for communication gap
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Airlines are taking steps to improve customer service but have failed to address the most deep-seated cause of dissatisfaction -- flight delays and cancellations, federal investigators say.
Airlines are making great progress in addressing such customer concerns as quoting the lowest airfare and responding to complaints promptly, but they provided "untimely, incomplete, or unreliable reports" about flight delays and cancellations, according to a report released Monday by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Inspector General's Office.
"Since air travelers in 2000 stood a greater than one in four chance of their flight being delayed, canceled, or diverted, we believe the airlines should go further," the report says, noting that travelers face at least two more summers of congested airports and crowded skies before more long-term relief efforts kick in.
"As the old saying goes, what we have here is a failure to communicate, communicate honestly about scheduling," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon. "A failure to communicate honestly about delays and cancellations; a failure to communicate honestly about bumping passengers from flights."
Some progress reported
The report is the culmination of more than a year of work by the Department of Transportation's watchdog branch. More than 40 people in the Inspector General's Office participated in the study, observing approximately 550 delayed and 160 canceled flights, reviewing 4,100 baggage claims and placing nearly 2,000 phone calls to reservation centers.
The conclusion: Airlines made progress in living up to 12 "commitments" they made a year ago to stave off Congress's threatened "Passenger Bill of Rights," but problems persist.
In one-fifth of the delayed 550 flights the inspectors observed that the flight information display system showed a flight was on time when, in fact, the flight had been delayed for more than 20 minutes, the report said.
Airlines were uneven in living up to a commitment to deliver late baggage to passengers. One airline met a 24-hour delivery goal only 58 percent of time, while another met the goal 91 percent of the time.
The report said all airlines have taken steps to accommodate passengers' essential needs when stuck on runways for "extended" delays. But airlines differed on what qualified as "extended." One airline defined it as 45 minutes; another as three hours.
Report: Make service commitments mandatory
Wyden said while Congress can't end all delays at airports, it can require the airline industry to provide passengers with "timely, accurate information and reasonable service."
The report makes 29 recommendations to the airlines, the U.S. Department of Transportation and Congress. Among them:
Making the voluntary customer service commitments enforceable by law or regulation. "Three of the 14 airlines have already taken action to incorporate all provisions of the commitment and their plans into their contracts of carriage," the report said.
Airlines should establish targets for reducing the number of chronically delayed and/or canceled flights.
Airlines should also provide on their Internet sites the prior month's on-time performance for each scheduled flight.
Congress ordered investigation
The report also reiterates several recommendations it made last June, including:
Establishing a uniform system for tracking delays. The Federal Aviation Administration uses one standard for determining a delay; airlines use other definitions. That confuses the public and makes it harder to resolve the problem.
Developing maximum arrival and departure rates for the nation's top 30 airports. A set of benchmarks "is essential in understanding the impact of (airline) scheduling practices and what relief can realistically be provided," the report says.
Developing immediate, short-term and long-term plans for addressing airport capacity problems.
Congressional concern over increasing complaints in air travel soared after a January 1999 incident at the Detroit Metro Airport in which hundreds of passengers were stuck in planes on snowbound runways for more than eight hours.
Congress ordered the investigation to see if U.S. airlines are implementing customer service plans to improve service.
Inspector General Kenneth Mead is scheduled to testify about his findings Tuesday before the Senate Commerce Committee.
Government report card on airline customer service due Monday
U.S. Department of Transportation
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