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Promises Lose Ground When Planes Are Late

Flying * Southwest shifts flights to Oakland to avoid San Francisco delays; Biztravel cuts its compensation program.


If you ask the executives at Southwest Airlines or Biztravel .com, you may get a more diplomatic explanation of what happened last month. But the bottom line is this: Those companies each bet that air travel on-time performance would get better--or at least not get worse. They bet wrong. And now they're both beating strategic retreats.

At Southwest Airlines, which has been admired for its timeliness since its birth in 1971, the problem is San Francisco. Southwest, which began its service to San Francisco International Airport in 1982, announced late last month that beginning March 5, it would pull out of SFO. That airport's cheek-by-jowl runway alignment, coupled with frequent fog and tight scheduling, historically contribute to unusually high delay rates. Instead, the airline decided to redeploy its 14 daily flights from SFO to other airports.

Southwest says delays among those 14 daily SFO departures have been "rippling across our system," costing the carrier money and reputation, and that the San Francisco operation, judged alone, has not been profitable. Data for November show Southwest's flights on time 75.1% overall, its San Francisco departures 65.3% on time.

The SFO pullout leaves United as the dominant carrier on the heavily traveled paths between LAX and SFO. Southwest's service to Oakland, a favorite alternate airport for many Bay Area travelers, will gain eight daily flights, bringing the carrier's total to 115 daily arrivals (and the same number of daily departures) at Oakland. The carrier also has 71 daily departures from San Jose.

Southwest said it would contact ticket-holders for San Francisco flights between March 5 and June 8 to help with alternate arrangements.

Meanwhile, has decided to stop betting as heavily on the promptness of several other major airlines.

The online ticket-booking agency, owned by Philadelphia-based Rosenbluth International, one of the largest and oldest travel agencies in the U.S., astonished many in the travel industry last May when it pledged refunds of $100 and up to customers whose flights were delayed on American, Continental, US Airways, British Airways and Air France. (Japan Airlines has since been added.) The offers covered delays for any reason, from air traffic control issues to weather, excluding mechanical issues.

The refunds were not automatic; a customer had to complain. Still, they added up. In the last nine months, which included a stormy summer in the Midwest, ongoing air-traffic control snafus and several performance-impairing labor actions among airlines, found itself paying out more than projected. Hal Rosenbluth, the chief executive of Rosenbluth International, said he expected to pay $600,000 between May and late January. Instead, he said, the tab was $1.6 million.

On Jan. 23, Rosenbluth and announced a retrenchment: In conjunction with the opening of new guarantee programs covering selected hotels and rental car agencies (with refunds of $20 to $50), the Web site is cutting back its payoffs for late or canceled flights.

Participants in Biztravel's new programs include Alamo Rent A Car and National Car Rental, along with hotel chains Doubletree, Fiesta Americana, Omni and Wyndham.

Under the new scale, travelers who bought tickets through beginning Jan. 23 receive $25 (instead of $100) for verified complaints over flights delayed 30 minutes; $50 (instead of $200) for flights an hour late and $100 (instead of a full refund) for flights that are canceled or are more than two hours late.

Despite its unexpectedly high cost, the gambit did attract customers, Rosenbluth said. The Web site's bookings--about $90 million in 2000--increased an estimated 50% and remained at that accelerated rate after the initial announcement of refunds, he said.

Thinking of the money lost and attention gained, Rosenbluth also said this of the original offer: "It was like a mackerel in the moonlight. It stunk and it shined at the same time."

Overall, Department of Transportation statistics show that the 10 largest U.S. carriers delivered 73.9% of their domestic flights on time in the 12 months ending Nov. 30. Those airlines' overall average on-time performance from September 1987 through November 2000 was 78.4%.

What's an airline customer to do? When possible, book departures early in the day, rather than later, when, statistics show, delays are more likely.

Consider using an alternate airport with a better punctuality record (such as Oakland).

Think twice about using carriers with poor on-time performance rates. (United, for instance, has ranked last among major carriers for most of the last decade.) But remember that sometimes, it makes sense to stick with delay-prone carriers because of other schedule issues or a better fare or a mileage program.

When booking, ask agents about the on-time performance for the flight. Through their computers, travel agents and airline clerks generally have access to this information.

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