Perhaps the most symbolic service cutback this year was American Airlines' decision to stop offering more legroom in economy class on some planes. Launched in 2000, the More Room Throughout Coach program was popular, but according to American, it prevented the airline from offering competitive fares.
"I'm not surprised," says Pat Funk, vice president of MyTravelRights.com, a Web site devoted to airline consumer advocacy. Funk believes that service at the major airlines has declined over the past two years.
Of course, good service doesn't mean the same thing to all people—some travelers applaud the more laid-back attitude of the successful low-cost carriers while others bemoan the lack of meal service. Funk dislikes self-service check-in, which many see as a good way to avoid standing in line.
In more-measurable areas, things have been getting better. Flight delays have dropped considerably, in tandem with a decrease in the number of flights. In May 2003, passengers filed 489 complaints with the DOT about airline service, down 35.4 percent from May 2002. The most recent Airline Quality Rating—an annual report compiled by professors Dean Headley of Wichita State University and Brent Bowen of the University of Nebraska at Omaha that scores the top 10 U.S. airlines for customer performance—showed improvement for the second straight year.
Airports and the TSA have a role to play in service, too: a key complaint of many travelers is the wait time at security checkpoints. According to the TSA, waits averaged three minutes per passenger this spring. However, figures vary—a function of airport design and screener efficiency. For instance, at Atlanta's Hartsfield, there's only one checkpoint for the entire airport, whereas Los Angeles International has multiple checkpoints in each terminal.
GRADE: B+ FEEDBACK Overall, the industry is doing an acceptable job during a challenging time, and competition in the skies promises to spur further improvements. Security checkpoints should be added to underserved airports, and some of the more beleaguered airlines could improve customer relations at no cost by reminding their employees to treat passengers with care.
HONOR ROLL Southwest Airlines
The Texan success story has led the way among airlines in demonstrating how a commitment to customer service can be profitable.