WASHINGTON — The Department of Transportation, in another action designed to reduce widespread flight delays, Wednesday unveiled a rule requiring the nation's 14 largest airlines to tell passengers how often their flights are on time.
Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole said that beginning Oct. 15, the airlines must file monthly reports with the Federal Aviation Administration detailing their on-time performance and must make the statistics available to the computerized reservation systems used by most travel agents.
The information will help travelers make "informed choices" about which airlines to use and should discourage airlines from the "unrealistic scheduling" of too many flights at peak periods, she said.
"We believe that disclosure of this information will help reduce consumer frustration . . . while giving carriers additional incentive to be more responsive to consumers and to compete on the basis of better performance," Dole said at a news conference.
The new rules also address baggage service, requiring airlines to report the number of passenger complaints filed about lost, damaged or mishandled luggage.
Department officials said the new rules were developed with the cooperation of many airlines and are designed to improve service at a time when the increased number of carriers are competing to offer the most flights at the most popular traveling times.
At the nation's busiest airports, long lines of flights waiting to depart have developed, causing substantial delays.
Last week, under pressure from the department, six major airlines signed an agreement promising to modify their schedules to cut down on delays at four congested airports or face fines of $1,000 per delayed flight.
At the same time, Congress is considering even stronger consumer protection requirements sponsored by Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-San Jose) and others.
Dole denied that she was attempting to head off congressional action, saying: "Our plans started long ago."
William F. Bolger, president of the Air Transport Assn., the leading airline industry trade group, said the new rules parallel recommendations from his association two months ago.
"The airlines will certainly provide the requested information," Bolger said. "But the Department of Transportation seems to be preoccupied with reporting on problems rather than solving problems."
Must Honor Requests
Dole said the FAA, which is part of the Transportation Department, will begin publishing the monthly performance reports about Nov. 1. Upon request, airlines also must provide the information directly to consumers on a flight-by-flight basis.
Dole said any flight that arrives more than 15 minutes late will be considered delayed. Airlines will be rated according to their percentage of on-time nonstop flights to the nation's 27 busiest airports.
Delays caused by mechanical problems will not be included because "in the interest of air safety we don't want to put pressure on a pilot to depart with faulty equipment," Dole said.
Department officials said the rules resulted largely from a government study at the major airports in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and Dallas.
"Preliminary data show that arrival delays of 15 minutes or more occurred on 25% to 60% of all flight operations, depending upon the particular air carrier and airport involved," a department statement said.
Delays, it said, "are a widespread problem."
Dole told reporters that "unrealistic scheduling of flights by air carriers is an unfair or deceptive practice or unfair method of competition. . . ."
The 14 domestic carriers affected by the rule are Alaska, American, America West, Continental, Delta, Eastern, Northwest, Pacific Southwest, Pan American, Piedmont, Southwest, Trans World, USAir and United. Dole said these carriers account for 90% of all domestic air travel revenues.
The airports covered are Atlanta's Hartsfield; Boston's Logan; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago's O'Hare; Dallas-Fort Worth; Denver's Stapleton; Detroit; Houston's Intercontinental; Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Memphis; Miami; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Newark, N.J.; New York's John F. Kennedy and La Guardia; Orlando, Fla.; Phoenix; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Philadelphia; San Francisco; St. Louis; Seattle-Tacoma; Salt Lake City; San Diego; Tampa, Fla., and Washington's National.
American Airlines spokesman Steve McGregor said the carrier is "fully in support" of the government action.
"We think that delays have been a serious problem in the airline industry," and the new rule would be an incentive to carriers with poor performance records, he said.
Bruce Hicks, spokesman for Continental Airlines in Houston, said: "We don't think they went far enough. We think more disclosure is necessary."
Hicks said consumers should be given systemwide on-time records by airlines, not just their on-time rates to selected cities and said Continental will file an emergency petition with the Department of Transportation requesting that airlines provide systemwide on-time records.