As the nation's prosperity continues and low-cost airlines expand, more and more Americans are traveling by air. According to some estimates, within 10 years the number of trips by air annually will balloon from 600 million today to more than 1 billion.
But increased traffic is clearly stalling airlines' ability to provide adequate customer service. Passenger complaints to the Transportation Department rose 25 percent last year. Members of Congress report their phones ringing off the hook with constituents complaining about overbooking of flights, poor information about fare options, or airline personnel that lie about delays and cancellations. Significantly, says Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, businesses that use air travel are starting to fuss.
Passengers' problems were highlighted recently when a devastating snowstorm hit Detroit over the New Year's Day weekend. A series of miscalculations and bad decisions by Northwest Airlines, which controls more than two-thirds of the flights in and out of Detroit's Metro Airport, left thousands stranded on aircraft stuck on runways, unable to find free gates or take off. Some sat for more than eight hours on planes with no food and overtaxed sanitary facilities.
Senator Wyden has joined forces with Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R) of Arizona and others to co-sponsor the "Airline Passenger Fairness Act." The proposal would create a passenger "bill of rights," requiring airlines to:
* Provide a full refund within 48 hours of a ticket purchase.
* Tell passengers when a flight is oversold and explain why flights are delayed, diverted, or canceled.
* Tell passengers about all fares charged for a particular flight, so travelers can make informed decisions.
* Deliver checked baggage within 24 hours.
* Provide accurate information about an airline's frequent-flier system, including how many seats can be redeemed on each flight.
The industry says these requirements would raise fares. But if it wants to avoid legislation, it must quickly improve customer service.
Without notable improvement, the public is likely to step up its demands, and some version of the McCain-Wyden bill will fly through Congress.