CHICAGO — On the last Sunday afternoon in July, in this season of record air travel, O'Hare Airport is approaching meltdown. Countless flights are being delayed or cancelled, apparently because of thunderstorms from Texas to the East Coast, testing the patience of thousands of passengers.
As they stare at departure monitors, wait in endless lines at the customer service desk, and sprawl on the floor because there are no more seats, travelers face a sobering experience that has become more common in recent weeks: You can't always get there from here, especially this summer.
"This place is a zoo," a young woman at O'Hare tells someone on her cellphone. Elsewhere in the same terminal, a man echoes that sentiment, telling his companion, "I've never seen anything like this."
Call it The Summer of Our Discontent, when airline ratings are plummeting even as their profits rise. It's enough to make weary fliers consider revising Karl Malden's famous American Express travel slogan, "Don't leave home without it," to simply "Don't leave home."
Last month Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nebraska introduced legislation that would force airlines to improve customer service and revamp pricing policies. It follows last year's "Air Traveler's Bill of Rights," which Congress dropped after airlines promised to improve customer service.
A report from the US Department of Transportation finds that customer complaints jumped 74 percent in the first four months of this year.
Joe Hopkins, a spokesman for United Airlines, sums up the challenges facing all airlines: "We can't manage the weather, and we don't run the archaic ATC [air traffic control] system."
True. At the same time, anyone inconvenienced by delays or cancellations knows that airlines still hold most of the power. Just read the fine print on your ticket: "Times shown in timetable or elsewhere are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract.... Schedules are subject to change without notice. Carrier assumes no responsibility for making connections."
Passengers seeking affordable fares must still play by strict rules: Book 14 or 21 days in advance. Stay over a Saturday night. Pay $75 to make any changes, regardless of unexpected switches on the airline's part.
What can airlines do? Herewith, a few suggestions from one who has had ample opportunity to survey the scene at airports during delays and cancellations on four trips this summer:
*Be more flexible. When passengers are delayed more than three hours, thus shortening the time available at their destination, waive the $75 penalty fee if they wish to change their return flights.
*Find ways to notify passengers when flights are cancelled or delayed. United, for one, is launching a service that alerts customers who have pagers when flight schedules change significantly.
*Make it easier for travelers to register complaints or concerns by providing toll-free numbers for customer service. American, Delta, and Continental already do. United and Northwest both say they are working on it. TWA requires customers to fax, e-mail, or mail their comments. "We don't have people staffed to take incoming phone calls," says one TWA agent.
*Similiarly, revive a practice from the past by including customer comment cards in airline magazines. Follow the lead of hotels and restaurants that solicit guests' opinions with cards asking, "How are we doing?"
*Get airline executives out of cloistered offices and into airports and airplanes, especially on gridlocked days like last Sunday at O'Hare. Let them observe the scene firsthand, listen to travelers' comments, strike up conversations. These people constitute a huge, free focus group. Then executives can take their observations back to the boardroom and work on ways to provide better service.
*Answer reservation phones more promptly. And don't pressure customers to give their credit-card number when they call to book a reservation. A 24-hour "courtesy hold" offers travelers needed time to finalize plans, especially on nonrefundable fares.
What can passengers do?
*Lower expectations. Build in more travel time to allow for possible delays.
*Don't blame the messengers - gate and reservation agents - for delivering bad news. Delays and cancellations aren't their fault.
*If a flight with meal service is delayed more than three hours, ask - nicely, please - if a meal voucher is available. I inquired at O'Hare Sunday night, nearly four hours after our dinner flight was supposed to take off, and received a voucher.
*Finally, when flights go well, express appreciation.
For all the talk about "air rage," most delayed passengers maintain a remarkable equanimity, at least outwardly. Even families with babies and young children take a surprisingly philosophical, go-with-the-flow approach. People grumble, of course. But air rage hardly characterizes the vast majority of inconvenienced travelers.
Despite the bad press airlines have endured in recent weeks, they are doing some things better. Last month one of my flights from Boston to Chicago was running three hours late. The pilot himself came out to the boarding area, not once but twice, to give us the latest information on a band of storms near Chicago. He was hardly reassuring, even emphasizing that the flight might well be cancelled. But his presence and concern were comforting. Who could ask for more?
It's the kind of approach, multiplied by many flights in many airports, that could work wonders in rehabilitating the airlines' currently sullied image. Who knows? After that, we might even dare hope for more than pretzels at mealtime.
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