Ben Grefsrud /
By Travel writer contributor
updated 10/18/2007 11:56:04 AM ET 2007-10-18T15:56:04

A recent "Well-Mannered Traveler" column outlined the ways in which several airports around the country are trying to improve the airport “experience” by beefing up customer service with everything from free Wi-Fi and cookies to eager-to-help employees dressed in festive tropical shirts.

But while it may be nice to travel to or through a well-mannered airport, “the real problem with air travel is in the hands of the airlines ... not the airports,” wrote nic326 on the Bad Trips discussion board, “Airlines just don't give a rip anymore and it really shows.”

Most travelers would agree. Late arrivals, missed connections and outright cancellations are at an all time high. And each week seems to bring another horror story involving folks stuck at airports or stranded for hours on airplanes going nowhere. Grumble or complain and more often than not an overworked, stressed-out airline employee responds with an icy “Do I look like someone who cares?” stare.

The airlines say “It’s not really our fault” and place blame on everything from the nation’s antiquated air traffic control system to season after season of unusually stormy weather and other “totally out of our control” situations. But disgruntled passengers agree: none of that is an excuse for treating paying customers like dirt.

Some fed up travelers are pushing for federal legislation to force airlines to do better.  But airlines argue they’d rather try to fix the mess on their own. So perhaps that’s why airlines have been rolling out plans, policies and new procedures that promise better customer service.

Some examples:

On the United Airlines Web site, the recently revised "Customers First" service commitment states that “... customers have the right to expect — to demand — respect, courtesy, fairness and honesty from the airline they have selected for travel.”  The 12-point list is the same basic policy you’ll find posted on the Web sites of all other Air Transport Association member airlines and was first adopted back in 1999 when airlines were also being chided for poor customer service. Unfortunately, there’s no indication on any airline Web site I looked at that explains just what part of the service commitment has been updated, revised or modified. So it’s hard to tell if there’s really anything fresh and new here.

American Airlines, which was getting poor marks for customer service long before last summer’s storm-induced schedule disruptions, is also working on a revised customer service program. “While we can’t control the weather,” says American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner, “we can control how we deal with people.” 

Wagner says the airline is adopting a set of new procedures that should make it easier to communicate with passengers and to respond to situations in or out of the airline’s control. Those measures range from proactively blocking seats on peak holiday travel dates “for use in re-accommodating passengers whose flights are cancelled or delayed due to by bad weather” to making better use of available technologies to let passengers know just what the heck is going on during weather delays.

Over at Northwest Airlines, a spokesman told me that finishing touches are being put in place for a major customer service training initiative the airline promises will focus on pilots, flight attendants, reservation agents and other staff who have front line contact with customers. Specific details, he said, should be released very soon.

And it was last winter, you may remember, when JetBlue Airways introduced its "Customer Bill of Rights" after a series of truly knuckle-headed decisions left many customers in the northeast stranded during and after a Valentine’s Day storm.

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JetBlue’s broad policy details how the airline will communicate with passengers and outlines the very specific ways it will compensate customers who may be inconvenienced by situations within and, in some cases, outside of the airline’s control.

So are we about to enter — or return to — the era of the Well-Mannered Airline? If airlines follow-up on even a few of their “new and improved” customer service promises, we’ll be heading in the right direction. But given past history, not many passengers are willing to sit back to wait and see. 

Certainly not Kate Hanni. She founded the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights after a particularly harrowing airplane stranding experience in 2006. “Those airline initiatives are a joke,” says Hanni, “They’re nothing more than smoke and mirrors.”

Hanni and her supporters want nothing less than a federally mandated passengers’ bill of rights because, they say, even the most well-meaning airline customer service policy is ultimately unenforceable. “It reminds me of my children,” says Hanni, “If they know they’re going to get punished they make promises, but the behavior continues unless I impose consequences. It’s the same with airlines. We need consequences.”

Definitely some consequences. And serious time-out for any airline that does anything to signal that it still doesn’t give a rip.

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