Getting the airline industry to improve customer service is like trying to move a parked 747: You need a whole lot of people pushing with all their might – or one heck of a tractor – to overcome the leviathan’s resistance to motion.
Thirteen months after American Airlines trapped thousands of passengers on grounded planes in Texas for up to nine hours, the crusaders for passenger rights have nudged the jumbo jet a few inches forward.
New York recently passed a state law requiring airlines to provide adequate food, water, ventilation and toilets to passengers stuck on the ground for more than three hours. Half a dozen other states are debating similar legislation.
Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, will introduce a California version of the bill this morning at a news conference with Kate Hanni, the Napa woman who got caught in American’s Texas debacle and decided to take on the system.
JetBlue Airways, shaping up after its own service meltdown during an ice storm last Valentine’s Day, now promises customers vouchers – in some cases for their full fare – if a flight is delayed or canceled. JetBlue also will allow passengers to get off planes if they’re trapped on the ground more than five hours.
Meanwhile, after seven years of study, the U.S. Department of Transportation is finally poised to double the compensation airlines must pay travelers who are involuntarily bumped from overbooked flights. For the first time, the agency intends to apply the bumping rules to commuter flights of 30 to 60 seats, which generally experience more irregularities than large jetliner flights.
That’s a whole lot more than we had a year ago. Hanni and the group she founded, the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, deserve a lot of the credit. The former real estate agent has devoted the past year of her life to improving the experiences of airline passengers, doing everything from staffing her group’s consumer hotline to testifying before government committees.
“Kate has been quite accomplished in her organizing,” Leno said.
Yet real progress remains maddeningly elusive.
“Airline service has gotten worse,” said Hanni, who gives the industry an “F” in a report card she’s releasing today. “They’ve unbundled more services.”
Northwest Airlines now charges a fee to reserve certain aisle, window and exit-row seats. United, the Bay Area’s dominant carrier, demands more cash if you want to sit in the front of the plane, and just announced that it will make passengers fork over $25 to check a second bag.
The likely mergers of Delta with Northwest and United with Continental will only make things worse. Fares will increase as merged carriers cut flights, and service will decline as thousands of employees are laid off. The turmoil of trying to blend workforces, fleets and computer systems will cause massive disruption for customers. Just look at US Airways: Two years after merging with America West, the airline is still a basket case.
Despite massive publicity about service failures, the airlines continue to fight any attempts to mandate service improvements. Instead, they prefer to blame the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, bad weather, the antiquated air-traffic system, a shortage of controllers and price-conscious customers for their problems.
Congress claims it wants to do something, but has spent months bickering over a massive aviation bill that would fund new air-traffic technology, set minimal rules for passenger service during extended ground delays and require airlines to disclose more information about late flights, cancellations and diversions.
Hanni isn’t giving up. She thinks the threat of a patchwork of state laws requiring airlines to provide basic necessities to grounded passengers will force Congress to pass a single, national law.
Her coalition also plans to join with labor unions to fight the proposed mergers. “We’re already getting calls from pilots saying that the FAA sleep rules are not being followed,” she said. “They’re so tired that they’re falling asleep in the cockpit.”
Hanni spends a lot of time on planes these days. More than anything else, she wants airlines to be honest with their customers.
“None of us is saying we have a constitutional right to fluffy pillows,” she said. “I do believe we have a constitutional right to the truth.”