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Update: T+L Aviation Report Card 2002

Service Following september 11, air travelers have had to contend with long lines at security checkpoints and reduced amenities on board. But on the whole, flying today has actually become more pleasant. Almost everyone—from airline personnel to passengers—seems friendlier and more tolerant. How long this will continue is anyone's guess: as a culture, we've got a short memory. But for the time being, flying appears to be on a more civilized course.

Who can forget the epic flight delays during the summer of 2000?Not surprisingly, the drop-off in air-traffic volume since last September has resulted in fewer delays and cancellations of scheduled flights. Another factor: prior to 9/11, two airlines had already revamped their schedules at major hubs—Delta in Atlanta, American in Chicago—which may be helping to reduce delays as well, particularly during peak travel times.

For example, in May of this year, the lctProgress Report:ich figures were available at press time, the DOT reported that carriers canceled 1 percent of their scheduled flights on average, compared with 1.8 percent a year earlier. As for delays, the DOT reported that 82.8 percent of flights were on time in May, versus 81.5 percent a year earlier. The FAA, which tracks delays in a different way, reported that in May holdups were down 22 percent from May 2001.

Meanwhile, the FAA's Free Flight Program, which should also help ease delays, continues to move forward. Free Flight will gradually allow pilots to have more say in choosing their routes, rather than having air-traffic controllers dictate their flight paths and altitudes. As part of the program, the FAA is in the process of installing $200 million in necessary software in the nation's 20 air-traffic centers. So far, it's up and running at six of them, and should be operating at all 20 by the end of 2004.

B+ Progress Report: Although we won't know the full story until air traffic returns to pre—September 11 levels, recent airline performance has been encouraging; as demand increases, airlines and airports should keep traffic at reasonable levels during peak times to prevent delays and cancellations.

Three years ago, airline service had deteriorated to such an extent that Congress was ready to intervene by enacting groundbreaking passenger-rights legislation. To thwart the lawmakers, the airline industry crafted a 12-point pledge to put consumers first. This pledge—which included commitments to help customers find the lowest fare, to provide timely notice of delays and cancellations, and to respond in a timely fashion to complaints—has laid the foundation for smoother relations.

In the summer of 2001, when the government last weighed in on airline service, the DOT's Inspector General told Congress that most airlines were on their way to incorporating this service commitment into their contracts of carriage. That means customers will be able to hold the airlines liable for infractions of their pledge. At the same time, the DOT IG's office noted that the airlines had not addressed several of its recommendations, including, among other things, that customer service reps automatically inform passengers of a flight's track record of on-time performance when they purchase tickets. (Today, many airlines still make you ask for this information.)

It is one measure of customer satisfaction that complaints to the DOT from air travelers have dropped markedly since last year. In May, complaints were down 34.2 percent from May 2001. Of course, these numbers may not reflect the true extent of customer dissatisfaction, since, according to Dean Headley, professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of an annual airline quality rating, many air travelers who would like to file a complaint do not follow through. Nonetheless, passengers may have elected to grin and bear more inconveniences, just as the airlines' difficult economic situation has made them more eager to please. "The airlines know how far they can push the flying public," says Headley. "If they don't pay attention, if they don't make changes, they lose the business."

On the whole, pre—September 11 data suggest that a trend toward better service had begun even before the attacks. ATA spokesperson Mike Wascom points out that in many areas, such as lost baggage, service was already improving. Headley's 2001 survey, released in the spring, showed similar findings.

A- Progress Report: The airlines seem to be doing a better job treating passengers with civility, but to cement goodwill, they should move forward and incorporate service commitments in their contracts of carriage.


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