US major carriers have been warned by Congress that they could still face legislative action to force them to improve customer service. The warning follows a preliminary report by the Department of Transportation (DoT) that describes the results of a voluntary airline programme as a mixed bag.


According to DoT figures, complaints by US airline passengers more than doubled last year compared with 1998. Eighteen months ago, the major carriers faced the prospect of legislation being introduced that would make compulsory certain procedures designed to improve overall service.

Horrified at the prospect of "re-regulation", the airlines fought back and introduced their own voluntary customer plan, Customers First. Under that plan, all the US passenger-carrying member airlines of the Air Transport Association agreed to a common set of commitments to the customer. They include offering the lowest fare available, notifying customers of known delays and cancellations, allowing reservations be held or cancelled within 24h without penalty, and an increase in baggage liability limits from $1,250 to $2,500.

By introducing their own plan, the airlines hoped to ward off congressional attempts to introduce a customer service bill. But a mid-term report by the DoT's Inspector General has sparked the interest of congressmen once more, with some threatening to pick up where they left off if the airlines do not improve.

"If the airlines' voluntary effort falls short, I am committed to moving forward on additional, enforceable passenger fairness legislation," says Senator John McCain, chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The Inspector General's report is not damning of the airlines' efforts, but concludes that more needs to be done and more training of staff will help. "The airlines are making a clear and genuine effort," says the report. "But bottom-line results to date are mixed and the airlines have a ways to go to restore customer confidence."

With record load factors and an under-funded air traffic control system still making delays and cancellations inevitable - the top cause for customer complaints in the USA - this summer season may prove the acid test for Customers First.

Source: Airline Business