WASHINGTON — The U.S. airline industry needs to do a better job of providing timely information about flight delays and in handling bumped passengers, an internal government watchdog said on the eve of one of the country’s busiest travel periods.
The Transportation Department’s inspector general issued a report to Congress made public on Wednesday that highlights several industrywide shortcomings in the area of customer service.
In a review of the operations at 14 large U.S. airlines, including AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, JetBlue Airways Corp., Northwest Airlines Corp. and Delta Air Lines Inc., the inspector general found that carriers needed improvement in:
- Giving passengers accurate and timely information about delays and cancellations
- Training employees who assist passengers with disabilities
- Explaining to frequent fliers the rules and restrictions governing redemptions, and
- Compensating passengers who agree to give up seats on overbooked flights.
The review was requested by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in June 2005. A similar review was conducted in 1999 at a time when the U.S. economy was booming and the nation’s aviation system was extremely strained.
Since then, the airline industry has undergone significant changes wrought by the downturn that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. Many carriers are once again reporting profits, despite high fuel prices, in part because of cutbacks in flying capacity that have enabled them to raise fares.
The Air Transport Association, a lobbying group whose members were the focus of the inspector general’s report, said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press that even as the report “notes a few areas for improvement, the airlines have worked diligently to reduce the rate of annual complaints.”
While consumer complaints declined in the years following 2000, perhaps the worst in the industry’s history, the inspector general said the drop was in part due to reduced passenger traffic. Moreover, it warned that with air travel demand surging again, consumer complaints are starting to rise again. In particular, the report cited increased complaints from passengers with disabilities.
The inspector general also said the Transportation Department must improve its oversight of the industry.
The inspector general’s report comes just one day before Thanksgiving, when an estimated 38.3 million people will travel 50 miles or more, according to AAA. The estimate is up by a million from last year.
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