Friendlier Skies

There's good news for the nation's air travelers: Prodded by a Congress responding to turbulent consumer complaints, the airline industry has sought a smoother altitude, announcing a package of customer-service improvements.

Improvement is long overdue. Consumer complaints to federal officials in April almost doubled those of a year earlier. Public irritation first hit wind-shear levels after a New Year's weekend debacle at the Detroit airport, in which thousands of Northwest Airlines passengers were stranded on aircraft stuck on the runway, unable to take off or find free gates because of a severe snowstorm.

Some passengers sat on planes for more than eight hours with no food and beverages and overtaxed toilets. A Transportation Department report on the incident found that conditions were so bad they threatened passengers' well-being. A state court last week certified up to 8,000 passengers in a class-action lawsuit against Northwest, which says it has revised its emergency procedures.

Faced with at least six bills in Congress to mandate reforms, the industry last week said it would implement a voluntary "customers first" program over the next six months. The airlines promise to:

*Inform customers of the lowest available fare on a flight.

*Provide prompt ticket refunds.

*Notify passengers of known delays and flight cancellations.

*Provide for passengers' basic needs during runway delays.

*Try to return misplaced checked bags within 24 hours.

In addition, the DOT last week doubled to $2,500 the minimum liability limits on lost, damaged, and delayed baggage.

Skeptics such as Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon point out that airlines still haven't agreed to notify passengers of overbooking, divulge all fares on a flight, or provide full information on their frequent-flier programs. They say the airlines are only committing to do what they should be doing anyway.

The industry's laudable initiative grounded tougher legislation - for now. But a Senate committee Wednesday passed a bill calling for the DOT to monitor airline compliance with the program. That measure deserves approval by the full Congress to remind airlines the public will be watching.

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