Service in the air ... and on the tarmac

Most fliers haven't been left inside a grounded airplane for up to 10 hours, as happened to JetBlue passengers in icy New York last week. While JetBlue commendably made amends, runway delays and other breakdowns in customer service have put a needed spotlight on the airline industry.

Of course, no air passenger should be held captive for hours without adequate food, water, air circulation, or toilet facilities. But such problems in customer care are still far too common in the otherwise friendly skies. How can they be fixed?

Airline deregulation in the 1970s opened the skies to Americans. Competition reduced prices to the extent that flying is, well, no big deal anymore. Vacationers scan the Internet for cut-rate fares and with a click, they're on their e-ticket way.

But increasingly, service is being bumped from flights. For the sake of cheap tickets, consumers may be willing to forgo meals and free movies, but why is the rate of lost baggage at its worst in more than 10 years? Why have delays in takeoffs and landings risen for the past five years? Why is there an increase in the number of passengers unexpectedly denied flights? Why are long tarmac waits more common?

Fed-up fliers are asking Congress to legislate better customer care, including a rule to require a plane to return to a gate if it's waited on the tarmac for three hours. The industry is working up a strong head wind against the idea. In the case of the tarmac wait, they argue, why legislate for an anomaly? About 15,000 flights take off daily in the US, but between 2000 and 2006, only about 330 planes waiting to take off held passengers for more than five hours.

This issue is indeed complicated. Requiring a plane to return to the gate would throw a wrench into a complex air-traffic system. It would cause planes to lose their place in line, cause airline crews to run up against limits on work hours, and require the rebooking of passengers – a much harder task with today's planes flying at near full capacity.

It would be far better, says the industry, to allow airlines to maintain flexibility to respond to weather and other problems and allow them to set their own standards, as JetBlue did this week by proclaiming its "customer bill of rights."

America's flying public has heard promises of voluntary standards before. Many have not been fulfilled. In 1999, airlines staved off legislation with industry guidelines to improve service. They made some inroads but have slipped in these times of high fuel and personnel costs.

Legislating service is not the preferred way to go, but Congress can keep the heat on the industry by holding hearings. In particular, lawmakers should urge airlines to write a time limit on tarmac waiting into their "contract of carriage" – their legal obligation to passengers.

Those contracts, which can be pages long, should be summarized in plain language and be as easily available as are the ground rules for taxis posted on the back of cab seats. Armed with clear information about an airline's obligations, consumers can make smart choices. And that will help each airline remember that keeping customers happy is far easier than having to find new ones if airlines make some of them unhappy.

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