What's Fair in the Air

When airlines don't meet their own voluntary standards for passenger service, it's time to consider the enforceable kind.

Last year, US airlines were able to stall regulatory legislation by promising Congress that they'd fulfill so-called "passenger rights" - helping customers find the cheapest fares, speeding up ticket refunds, informing passengers of delays and cancellations, and handling "bumped" passengers with fairness, for instance.

This week, the Department of Transportation's inspector general will release a report evaluating the airlines' performance during the past year. (See story on page 1.) In all likelihood, it won't vary much from last summer's six-month interim report, which showed some carriers have made progress, while others have not.

That report noted some improvements in how passengers are treated, but also a 74 percent increase over last year in delays (the No. 1 passenger complaint). Lost luggage and overbookings were also up, with baggage complaints doubling in 1999 from the previous year. Indeed, between 1995 and 1999, "taxi out" times of an hour or more increased 130 percent at 28 of the largest airports.

As the inspector general's report is released, Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon intends to reintroduce a "passenger rights" bill, which would require airlines to explain, in a timely fashion, all cancellations and delays. It gives passengers the right to get off a plane that's been parked at the gate for more than an hour past departure time, for example, and provides them a level of in-flight medical care. A similar bill by Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada is already in the congressional hopper.

The US Chamber of Commerce, on behalf of flying businesspeople everywhere, recently brought airline officials together to talk about the problems. Poor airline service - specifically delays - affects business productivity. Missed meetings, botched deadlines, and delays in moving an increasing volume of air freight create bottom-line issues.

For its part, the airline industry wants to shift the debate to the highly strained air-travel infrastructure. It's urging Congress and the Bush administration to strengthen the air traffic-control system and speed up new runway construction. Increased passenger demand (air travel has doubled since 1980) has led to a need for more and bigger airports as well as improved air traffic control.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta did order speedier authorizations for new runways last week and wants to speed up environmental assessments of proposed runways.

But such steps should not let the airlines off the hook on improving basic service. Re-regulating the airlines in this area should be a last resort in the face of market failure. Good service shouldn't require government mandate.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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