Report Finds Airlines Fall Short On Information on Delays, Awards

In a development that won't surprise regular air travelers, a newly released Department of Transportation report found that airlines often fail to provide adequate information on flight changes and delays, or on frequent flyer award policies, the Wall Street Journal reports. The report was publicly released today by the department's Office of Inspector General in response to a request by Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee to review how major airlines have complied with customer service commitments they agreed to in 1999. The report, which follows one done in 2001, isn't binding but could spur action based on its findings and recommendations. According to the report—which focused on 15 airlines, including AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, Northwest Airlines and UAL Corp.'s United Airlines—more than 40% of airline gate agents observed during the review failed to provide timely or adequate information on flight delays and cancellations. The report cited the case of a Dallas-Fort Worth-to-Philadelphia flight, when no announcements were made and no reason given during a 2-1/2 hour delay. A growing cause of customer complaints has been the inability to book airline tickets using the standard level of frequent-flyer award. Reduced seat capacity and deeply discounted fares have resulted in fewer seats available for frequent flyer awards. The report said many airlines don't provide useful information to customers on their frequent flyer redemption policies. And the type of information provided varies among airlines, making it hard for consumers to compare different programs, the report said. The report also said airlines need to improve their compensation policies for bumped passengers and their training for personnel dealing with special-needs passengers, such as minors or those with disabilities. To address these shortcomings, the report suggested the Department of Transportation's Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings take enforcement actions against carriers that consistently advertise unrealistic flight schedules. It also suggested looking into whether compensation for bumped passengers should be increased; and whether the industry should be required to standardize frequent flyer redemption data for customers. The report also recommended that the department strengthen its oversight and enforcement of air traveler consumer protection rules. It said the department's enforcement arm lacks the muscle and budget to monitor compliance of, or to enforce, consumer-protection rules. The result is that the office often has to take airlines at their word when they say they have complied with the rules, the report said.

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