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Airlines Take Step Forward in Customer Service.

Congress May Still Push For Legislation

The U.S. Department of Transportation's (USDOT) Inspector General issued a highly anticipated final report on airline customer service last week. This report was a follow-up to the interim report issued in June 2000, which provided a six-month review of the airline industry's voluntary plan to address customer service issues. Since the airline industry volunteered to address these issues and implement an industry-wide plan, the Senate Commerce Committee decided to postpone a legislative remedy to the plethora of customer complaints.

The final report, much the same as the interim report, concluded that the airlines were "making progress toward meeting their Customer Service Commitment and that [it] has been a plus for air travelers on a number of important fronts." But the report goes on to say that "notwithstanding progress by the airlines toward meeting their Customer Service Commitment, we continue to find significant shortfalls in reliable and timely communication with passengers by the airlines about flight delays and cancellations."

Statistics contained in the report show some alarming trends for an industry whose planned capacity increases "are not going to be in place for at least the next several years." In 2000, 27.5 percent of flights were delayed, canceled, or diverted affecting approximately 163 million passengers. The report also identified over 240,000 scheduled flights (representing 10,300 individual flight numbers) that were either delayed and/or canceled at least 40 percent of the time. One example of this was a daily non-stop flight between Washington, D.C. and Tampa, Fla., which was delayed or canceled 25 out of 31 times in one month (over 80 percent). Airlines are not currently required to give information on chronically delayed flights unless the customer requests the information.

Other areas addressed in the report included airlines providing information on the lowest fare available to all customers, meeting customer needs during long "on-aircraft delays," on-time baggage delivery, reservation cancellation practices, and responsiveness to customer complaints. Significant improvements were noted in several of these areas, but the overall assessment suggested that further improvements are needed to improve overall customer satisfaction.

Following the release of the report, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing to discuss the findings, as well as to assess the potential need for further Congressional action. Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in his opening statement, "the [Inspector General's] final report finds that the airlines are still deficient in many of these areas of basic customer service. This causes me great concern. After a year, we are still not in a position where basic customer service needs are being met." Soon after the hearing, Commerce Committee Ranking Democrat Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) joined McCain in introducing legislation, the Airline Customer Service Improvement Act (S. 319), that would require airlines to fully disclose on-time performance records to customers and establish targets for reducing the number of chronically delayed flights.

Other committee members stated their opposition to a legislative solution to customer service problems at this time. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) acknowledged that the airlines need to take additional steps to improve customer service but that he would support a more "common sense" solution. "I think we should not focus just on the inconveniences ... and look at the causes," Lott said. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the ranking member on the Aviation Subcommittee, stated that the improvements noted in the report show that "it's worth a second year to see what happens."

Overall, all those involved in the hearing, the USDOT Inspector General, the President of the Air Transport Association, and the committee members, agreed that more needs to be done to ensure that customer service issues are being adequately addressed. All interested parties also acknowledge that the key to providing quality air service for the long-term will be through a combination of airport capacity increases, modernization of the nation's air traffic control system, and good customer service practices by the airlines.
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Author:Kocher, Daniel
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 19, 2001
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