Airlines to reveal customer-service plans

Voluntary measures avoid federal legislation

September 12, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The major airlines will disclose this week exactly what pledges of customer service they are making as part of a voluntary program they agreed to this year to stave off federal legislation on passenger rights.

Each airline is supposed to tell the Transportation Department by Wednesday how it will implement the voluntary plan. David Fuscus, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the big airlines' trade group, said that the airlines would probably post their plans on their Web sites soon. The promises are to take effect on Dec. 15.

Consumer advocates say they hope the plans will help travelers learn about their rights, even though some of the rights are not new.

A new study by the General Accounting Office says that many of the guarantees the airlines are expected to offer are already required by other laws, or are practices that are widely followed in the industry.

Other guarantees, while offered voluntarily, would become legally enforceable if published by the airlines, the GAO said. The agency, an investigative arm of Congress, solicited an opinion from the Transportation Department, which regulates airlines. The Transportation Department said that failing to fulfill such promises -- concerning issues like offering the lowest available fare to a customer shopping for tickets, or responding to customer complaints -- would be an unfair trade practice.

By law, airlines must have copies of their legally binding contracts of carriage, the fine print that backs up an airplane ticket, available for inspection at ticket counters, but "most consumers don't even know what that is, or even ask for it," said one expert, Laurie J. Berger, the editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, published by Consumers Union.

This year, some lawmakers tried to write this kind of guarantee into a law, but the airlines sidestepped that by telling Congress they would act voluntarily.

The new GAO report, scheduled to be released tomorrow, compares the voluntary agreement, announced in June by the Air Transport Association, with contracts of carriage and with pertinent federal statutes and rules. It found that many of the new promises were not mentioned in the contracts of carriage, a point that had been raised by passenger rights advocates, who questioned whether the voluntary agreements are enforceable.

"If it is in the contract of carriage, a passenger can clearly bring a breach-of-contract case if a violation of the contract occurs," said a senior lawyer at the GAO, David K. Hooper.

"If they hold out a promise and renege on that promise, the Department of Transportation can go after them under unfair and deceptive trade practices statute."

Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who favored legislation and requested the GAO report, said he was unhappy with the airlines' being allowed to write their own rules.

"What we've got here is scattershot gobbledygook," he said Friday. "Some airlines will do a better job than others, but it's going to take months to sort all of this out."

Among the voluntary measures, the airlines are promising to make every reasonable effort to return checked bags within 24 hours. The issue is not addressed in contracts of carriage, but the Transportation Department said it would be unfair and deceptive not to deliver bags in a "reasonable" period of time, the GAO reported.

Airlines are also promising to inform customers about delays, cancellations and diversions in a timely manner.

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