Originally created 04/08/01

Hold airlines accountable



It's time to revive the Passengers' Bill of Rights. In fact, as last week's reports on airlines' declining service shows, it should have been passed in the last Congress.

Two years ago, after an entirely justified explosion of complaints concerning flight cancellations or delays, lost luggage, shoddy service, and passengers held hostage for hours in steamy, muggy cabins of planes stuck on the Tarmac, Congress was poised to get tough. But it then backed off after the airlines promised a "passenger protection program" to improve service.

The promise proved as reliable as a crooked politician's word. After a year, service had not only not improved, it had become downright pitiful.

Hence, the Passengers' Bill of Rights was introduced in Congress this year with, according to polls, strong public support. But, again, the airlines dodged the bullet with renewed pledges of better service.

Well, three strikes and your out. The latest annual survey, officially known as the Airline Quality Rating and garnered from U.S. Department of Transportation data, shows passenger complaints and declines in airline service are both accelerating:

More passengers than ever bumped due to overbooking; on-time flight arrivals and departures the (rare) exception, not the rule; luggage mishandling at peak levels; overall, the industry's rating tumbled almost 11 percent to a negative 2.05, down from what was already a miserable negative rating of 1.85 in 1999.

Small wonder some passengers go batty under the stress, attacking flight attendants and other passengers.

So what would a Passenger Bill of Rights accomplish? It would hold airlines accountable for treating the flying public with contempt. The bill that didn't quite make it last year would level stiff fines for delays - the longer the delays the stiffer the fines.

This would negate whatever financial benefits accrue to airlines for shoddy service. There were also other good measures in the bill designed to protect passengers' convenience and comfort.

One worthy reform being batted around would permit the Federal Aviation Administration to cap the number of flights in and out of primary trunk-line airports such as Atlanta's Hartsfield.

Fewer flights would relieve the bottlenecks that cause delays and passenger bumping. A cap would also have the beneficial impact of moving airlines' intense competition to regional airports, such as Augusta's Bush Field.

This would be a win-win-win situation for all concerned - passengers, airlines and mid-size airport terminals. What's Congress waiting for?



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