New, improved service to start this month -- or so the airlines say

Mark December 15 on your calendar: That's when the major airlines' new "customer commitment" plans are scheduled to take effect. But will they make any difference?

Created to forestall "passenger rights" legislation in Congress earlier this year, the plans are a series of promises about what airlines will do to provide accurate and timely flight and fare information, find lost baggage, answer complaints, make refunds, and so on. Unfortunately, many pledges are vague (the phrase "every reasonable effort" keeps cropping up); also, as the General Accounting Office noted in a recent review, they largely restate previously existing policies or even federal regulations.

Continental goes on and on about how it'll take care of passengers stuck aboard aircraft on the ground, but notes that the rules won't apply if the delay is "caused or directed by air traffic control"--as most delays are, according to the airlines. United brags that it eliminated mileage expiration in its frequent-flier program, but the move was merely a competitive response to a change made by American. And when the airlines spell out how much they'll pay customers who are involuntarily bumped, they're repeating consumer protection rules imposed on them by the Department of Transportation. Critics also complain that the airlines don't address the inability of customers to receive (or even inquire about) Internet discounts over the phone, or the continuing ban on back-to-back or hidden-city ticketing.

The major drawback: the programs aren't legally binding and carry no penalties for noncompliance. One carrier has been forthright about these limits: American notes that it "does not create contractual or legal rights. . . . we are not responsible for any special, incidental or consequential damages for delays, cancellations, lost baggage, late refunds or instances in which we do not meet our service goals." That's a heck of a loophole.

As of this writing, there's legislation in Congress that requires the DOT to investigate whether airlines are now informing passengers at the time of reservation whether a flight is overbooked (some airlines say they will, but only if the passenger asks and the information is handy), and whether airlines always make the lowest fare available. We'll keep you posted.