A search for fixes on flight delays

As passengers act, airlines and Feds try unity

Would $3,000 ease your pain of a lost vacation day caused by a flight delay? How about $2,500 for the loss of a "refreshing, memorable vacation"? Or even $240 for "waiting time"?

Those are some of the awards that airlines have dished out to disgruntled passengers who have gone so far as to take them to small-claims court, where filing fees are about $10 and no lawyers are needed.

"Small-claims courts are usually receptive to plaintiffs' claims," says Thomas Dickerson, a Westchester County, N.Y., court judge and author of "Travel Law." (Law Journals Seminar Press).

Holding airlines accountable for delayed or cancelled flights is "very practical. I encourage consumers to do it. It's one of the things we pay taxes for," he says.

Small-claims courts typically allow plaintiffs to seek awards of up to $5,000, but the maximum amount varies from state to state. The number of airline-delay-related cases and total damages awarded in the United States is unknown.

Passengers should not necessarily believe airlines' claims that they are not responsible for flight delays, says Mr. Dickerson, who has ruled on more than 3,000 small-claims cases.

Flight schedules are set in ink and widely distributed, of course. And airplane-grounding storm systems can boil up in just hours. But, as with any industry, personnel laxity and mistakes can also come into play.

"If the delay is something the airline truly cannot predict or foresee, they are not responsible," he allows.

But he also maintains that airlines sometimes fail to make arrangements to minimize problems when they could.

The wait worsens

Last year, flight delays increased 20 percent over the previous year. And the situation has yet to improve this year. Department of Transportation figures show 244 flight delays in March. That's down from 260 delays in February, but nearly double the number recorded in March 1999.

Finger-pointing abounds as to who or what is most to blame for the air-travel troubles.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) points to the sky, claiming 75 percent of air-traffic delays are weather-related.

The airlines have recently pointed at what they consider to be government's too-heavy hand.

"There has been an inability between the airline industry and the FAA to talk to each other in an adult fashion," says Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of the Airline Quality Rating report.

A plan for promptness

In March, the FAA instituted reforms aimed to improve communications between the agency and the airlines.

The FAA and airlines use the same high-tech weather forecasts to determine how to deal with traffic during storms.

And "their definitions are now roughly the same," says Mr. Headley. "For example, up until a month or two ago, the airlines would file [flight] schedules with the FAA every two weeks. Now, they're doing it daily. Also, the FAA and the airlines would rarely talk to each other about weather. Now they talk to each other almost hourly."

The reforms also aim to maximize the use of available air space and expand use of the Internet and other technologies to reduce flight delays.

"It will take at least several months of operation to see if the new system is really making an improvement," FAA spokesman William Shumann says.

Other reasons often cited for the increasing delays: Airlines schedule too many flights during peak travel times, airports lack enough gates to handle high volumes of flights, and air travel is hampered by an antiquated air-traffic-control system.

The FAA is in the midst of implementing a $13 billion modernization program which includes upgrading computers and radar. The benefits, however, may not trickle down to passengers for five years, FAA chief Jane Garvey has stated.

Still, airlines could go far toward "cooling the jets" of disgruntled passengers by leveling with them. "Passengers are more forgiving if given information that's plausible, believable," Headley claims. "Not everything's weather. Airlines are trying, but the mentality is hard to change. It's hard to get them to [own] up to the real reason sometimes."

The top airlines arrive on time up to 80 percent of the time, according to government statistics.

Yet those figures can be misleading.

A flight departs "on time" if it leaves the gate within 15 minutes of its scheduled departure - even if it sits on the tarmac for hours.

Similarly, if a flight arrives 15 minutes late at the gate, it's still reported as "on time."

Uncertain outlook

The forecast on whether flight delays will be as bad this summer as last is mixed.

Congress recently approved a $40 billion aviation bill that would increase the number of flights at some of the nation's busiest airports.

And while the FAA's new weather system may help alleviate gridlock in the skies, potential strikes and work slowdowns might offset any gains. "There are an awful lot of airlines involved in labor negotiations," Headley says.

Work stoppages could result in more passengers filing small claims against airlines.

Even if they aren't taken to court, airlines will likely hear more consumer complaints about delayed flights.

The DOT doesn't investigate such complaints because airlines, in its estimation, are taking the possibility of delays into account and publishing realistic flight schedules.

Occasionally airlines will not live up to their promises. But "flight delays are not against the law," says DOT spokesman William Mosley.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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