Given the swell of consumer dissatisfaction with airline service, it comes as no surprise that the Department of Transportation is proposing a substantial number of changes in how carriers operate their businesses.
Travelers are being encouraged to register their opinions with the DOT on matters including on-time performance, scheduling practices, flight delays, the availability of seats for discounted fares and baggage handling.
Currently, the DOT acknowledges, consumers generally have little information on flight reliability or on-time performance, and the airlines may not necessarily lose any business for poor performance. Moreover, unrealistic flight schedules may constitute a deceptive practice or an unfair method of competition.
Some airlines, such as American and Continental, have asked the DOT for regulations requiring disclosure of on-time performance information and related service factors.
Looking for Solutions
To cope with unrealistic scheduling practices, the DOT is looking at several possible solutions including a disclosure rule, adoption of a performance standard and changes in how flights are displayed on computer reservation terminals.
The DOT is especially interested in comments on the safety implications of these options. If overly strict rules are adopted, the concern is that this might increase the pressure on airlines to keep their planes in service to meet flight schedules.
With the disclosure rule, airlines could be required to reveal information on the reliability of service based on delayed and/or canceled flights. However, decisions would have to be made on what constitutes a delay, what information should be disclosed, whether all or just the major carriers should have to disclose this information, whether the information should be released directly to the consumer or the DOT or a third party, and how often the disclosures should be made.
With a performance standard, a level of service could be established that would bring enforcement action if an airline fell beneath it. In this area, decisions would have to be made on how to define a late flight (currently, the FAA gives a 15-minute grace period before a flight is considered late), what percentage of flights must be performed on time, whether there should be provisions in the rule for excusable delays, etc.
Changing Flight Positioning
How flights are positioned on the computer reservation terminals--which most travel agencies use--is another key issue. The DOT wants to find a way to ensure that flights, particularly those shown on the "first" screen, reflect as accurately as possible their on-time performance. Flights displayed on the first screen generally sell first, so positioning is important. One of the major factors in such positioning is the elapsed time of a flight (the departure time is another factor). However, by reducing a flight's elapsed time, an airline can have its flight shown earlier and thus increase its chances of selling seats on that flight.
To illustrate the problem, the DOT provided this example: a passenger could ask for the flight that would get him to Chicago the fastest, and be booked on one that inaccurately listed 1 hour 45 minutes as the flight length simply because the particular airline has "shaved" its schedule. Even though the real time for the flight is two hours, it could appear first on the screen.
Moreover, the DOT is considering whether the airlines should be required to display information about flights that have a tendency to be late or canceled.
One of the pet peeves of many travelers is discovering that few seats are actually available for any given discount fare, despite banner headlines in huge ads proclaiming these discounts. Airlines, using sophisticated computer technology, closely monitor seat inventories and naturally seek to sell the most seats possible at higher fares. In effect, the DOT wants to curb a form of bait-and-switch advertising.
Now there may be a new rule requiring airlines to report on a monthly basis how many seats will be available at discount fares.
The DOT also wants input from consumers on airline performance in such areas as delays in carrier telephone reservation response times, lost or misdirected baggage, missed connections and cabin amenities. Specifically, the DOT is looking for a reading on whether consumers view problems in these categories as significant enough to warrant regulatory action, what service elements are most important and whether data on any of these areas would be of real use to travelers.
On the subject of baggage, the DOT is contemplating whether the airlines should have to report on how many pieces of luggage are handled on each flight segment as well as the number delayed or lost.
The carriers may also be mandated to turn in heftier monthly reports on such aspects of service--or lack of it--as denied boardings and missed connections at hub airports. This will give the DOT more information, but how poor performance will be punished--if at all--is not clear.
What is clear is that the DOT is finally pushing the airlines, which have been accused of developing a somewhat cavalier attitude toward consumers since deregulation (an attitude even more noticeable, many say, as a result of the mergers that have consolidated airlines)--suddenly it's clean up your act or face the consequences. Developing the consequences is the next step.
Send your comments by July 10 to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Docket Division, Docket 44827, 400 7th St. S.W., Washington, D.C. 20590.