Will a 'passenger bill of rights' really work?

After what should have been a two-hour flight from New York to North Carolina turned into a 15-hour ordeal, Uli Schemet has no doubt that Congress should approve an airline passenger's bill of rights.

"It's an outrage that airlines are allowed to book as many flights as they want, knowing full well it will create enormous delays," he says. "Consumers get stuck on the tarmac, have their flights rerouted - it's ridiculous."

As the summer travel season gets under way, the US Senate is expected to take up the Airline Customer Service Improvement Act. It would codify many of the airlines' pledges to do better in reducing delays, notifying passengers about problems, and handling baggage - promises made two years ago in an effort to head off similar federal legislation.

To supporters, the bill is a much-needed cudgel to prod the airlines into taking the needs of the flying public seriously, even if it doesn't address some of the underlying causes of the nation's near-gridlocked skies - such as lack of runway space and the overburdened air-traffic-control system. To critics, the bill is just a Band-Aid that will allow politicians to hold a press conference to announce they're doing something - although from the airlines' perspective, it's nothing more than bureaucratic meddling.

Either way, the bill's imminent arrival on the Senate floor points up the public's increasing frustration with both the airlines and the government's inability to make a trip to Grandma's as reliable and hassle-free as possible.

"Last year, there were a higher number of complaints, the worst baggage-handling record, more involuntary denied boardings, and a worse on-time percentage [of arrivals]," says Dean Headley, a professor at Wichita State University in Kansas and co-author of the annual Airline Quality Rating. "The airlines basically ignored the customers for the last two years."

The airlines insist they have been working to improve flying conditions. They point to a report in February by the Department of Transportation's inspector general that gave them an A for effort in implementing their voluntary customer-service plan. The report, however, sharply criticized the airlines' actual performance and outlined steps the airlines could take to improve service.

Some of those recommendations are being implemented by the airlines on their own. For example, they're including in the so-called contract of carriage (all that small print on the back of tickets) the 12-point customer-service assurances the airlines pledged to earlier - like offering the lowest fare and notifying customers of known delays and cancellations. The provisions, in essence, would give passengers the right to sue to enforce them.

The points are also contained in the so-called passenger bill of rights, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina. Airlines have been trying to head off the legislation, arguing it will be "the camel's nose under the tent" of government re-regulation.

"I'd be much more comfortable as an airline passenger with Herb Kelleher as chairman of Southwest Airlines deciding what is best for Southwest, rather than Washington politicians or federal government bureaucrats," says Michael Wascom of the Air Transport Association, the lobbying group for the major airlines. "I mention Southwest because the greatest regulatory impact of this legislation will be felt by the low-cost carriers in the form of increased compliance and monitoring costs."

BUT critics are unmoved by such warnings and by pledges of goodwill, particularly in this era of deregulation and mergers, which could leave only a handful of major carriers. Some analysts, like economist James Brock of Miami University in Ohio, believe that unless the government can encourage greater competition, no amount of legislation or pledges of goodwill will solve the current crush in the skies.

"Deregulation does not mean laissez faire and no regulation. It was designed to create a system where competition can take place, and to do that, you have to enforce the antitrust laws," he says. "That has not happened."

The major airlines have not been shy about using the full force of their muscle to ease out start-up competitors. In an unprecedented Justice Department suit, American Airlines was charged with using predatory pricing and anticompetitive strategies to drive smaller competitors out of business.

The airline, Justice alleged, lowered prices and increased seats on routes where the competitors had set up shop - just long enough to drive the competitors out of business. Then, when the competitors folded, American's prices went right back up.

A federal judge, however, threw out the suit, saying the Dallas-based airline used "brass knuckles, not bare-knuckled" competition. The Justice Department has not decided whether to appeal, but critics doubt that the Bush administration would take on the Dallas-based company.

Because of such documented practices by the major carriers, Professor Brock and other experts believe the government should be more aggressive in enforcing antitrust laws.

"There's a difference between government intervention to promote competition versus the kind of government intervention that you're getting now with the bill of rights," says Brock. "Promoting competition really minimizes the amount of government intervention in the private sector, whereas the bill of rights ignores the root problem and ends up expanding government involvement."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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