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Air Travel Too Bumpy

Despite promises by the airline industry, more flights are late, more passengers are bumped and more baggage is mishandled, a new study finds.

The annual study by two university professors found airline service continuing to decline at a time when Congress is considering legislation intended to help consumers.

"It seems the airline industry is its own worst enemy," said the report issued Monday by Brent Bowen, director of the aviation institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University. The study was funded by the universities.

Based on data collected by the Transportation Department, the report found that last year:

Flights of the 10 major carriers were on time 72.6 percent of the time, down from 76.1 percent in 1999.

The Transportation Department received 2.98 complaints for every 100,000 passengers, a 20 percent increase over the 2.48 in 1999.

For every 1,000 bags checked, airlines mishandled or lost 5.29, up from 5.08 in 1999.

The rate of passengers being bumped from airlines against their wishes rose from 0.88 per 10,000 in 1999 to 1.04.

"Generally, the consumer wants to be treated with more respect and receive more reliable service," the report said. "Many think it will take an act of Congress to exact this from the airlines."

With Congress considering legislation in 1999, the airlines and the Transportation Department instead agreed on a package of voluntary standards. The department's inspector general reported in February that customer service had improved but still had a long way to go.

The Senate Commerce Committee approved a bill this year to make the airlines' voluntary consumer guidelines a legal contract with passengers; require airlines to disclose on-time performance of flights when customers buy tickets or make reservations; and require the industry to establish a timetable for reducing the number of flights delayed at least 30 minutes.

The House is considering similar legislation. "I've got nothing to lose," said Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., whose Appropriations transportation subcommittee held two hearings on airline delays last month. "My service is so bad, it couldn't get any worse."

Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the trade group for the major airlines, noted that the inspector general in his February report cited substantial improvements in customer service.

"He applauded the progress that had been made," Wascom said. "To ignore the positive steps that have been taken is simply disingenuous and misleading to the public. No one can argue that we are not fulfilling our commitments."

In addition, th ATA has announced steps to tell airline passengers of the lowest available fares when they buy their tickets, notify passengers whether a flight is delayed before they leave for the airport and create a task force to ensure that the information on airport monitors is correct.

Industry officials have blamed the problem largely on an air traffic system inadequate to handle the sharp growth in airline traffic. The number of passengers on U.S. airlines rose from 600 million in 1995 to 733 million in 2000, the Federal Aviation Administration says.

The problem is expected to get worse. The FAA projects that 1.2 billion passengers will fly on U.S. air carriers annually by 2012.

"At these rates, system saturation and failure is a reality in the very near future," the professors' report said. "Air carriers, airports and the FAA must work quickly and cooperatively to prevent this operational failure."

While construction of new runways and airports are years away, federal officials have focused on some short-term solutions, such as allowing pilots to fly around storms rather than be held on the ground, and switching some flights to lesser-used airports near crowded facilities or setting up new hubs in less-crowded cities.

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