Unhappy travelers

At the Department of Transportation, Norman Strickman has heard it all: Cramped airplane seats, unexplained delays and overbooked flights. He even tries to do something about it.

September 16, 1999|By Pat Meisol | Pat Meisol,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Calm prevails on the fourth floor of the U.S. Department of Transportation building in Washington, where American air travelers are bringing more stories of outrage than any year since 1988.

Norman A. Strickman's desk in 4107 is covered in neat piles. A dozen faxes from American Airlines, responses to his queries, arrived overnight. On this day, just after the Labor Day weekend, the government releases its monthly consumer report on the 10 major airlines -- ranking them by delays, lost baggage, and customer complaints -- and Strickman will be calling his contact at each carrier to make sure they saw it and to fix a time they can meet in person to discuss the stacks of new August complaints he's sending.

The day's newly opened mail begs attention, too.

"Dear Consumer Protection officer ..." begins the letter on top.

Strickman grins. "I guess that's me."

Thank goodness for the Internet, or he'd be stuffing envelopes today. As it is, he is waiting for the Web expert to put up the new airlines ranking report. It's a doozy.

This day, too, he -- the government -- announces that the complaints from July travelers rose 87 percent over June's and 169 percent over July of 1998. The way the year is going, complaints already doubled in the first six months, 1999 will be more horrible for passengers than the year following the industry's mergers and consolidation a decade ago. Strickman guesses 16,000 or 18,000 complaints, maybe even triple last year's.

The problem is not just record-high delays, missed connections, lost baggage, cramped legs and cold food. The main gripe against airlines is how badly they handle themselves when things go wrong. Misinformation, long lines and surly stewards are what drive people to register their ire.

Nowhere is the clash between expectation and reality more evident than in this tiny office.

"Let me tell you about my recent trip from hell," is the way most people begin their letters to the office.

The stories they send are a desperate plea to intervene in areas the marketplace seems unable to correct -- basic customer service, from common courtesy to the size of seats. Passengers began demanding more elbow -- and leg -- room in 1998. Then, amid the furor after Northwest Airlines passengers were trapped on a snowy Detroit runway for more than eight hours last January, Congress drew up a passenger rights bill. Now Congress and the airlines are doing a dance. Contrite, the airline industry yesterday unveiled its own promises to passengers, including a pledge to tell the truth about delays.

Will they be enough to stop Congress from acting?

Quiet communication

Considering the volume of complaints coming to the aviation consumer protection division, it's eerily quiet. No angry voices, bank of ringing phones or rattling fax machines into the office whose main mission is to rank airline service based on passengers' perceptions. In Strickman's office, business is done by voice mail, by e-mail, and by U.S. mail.

Sometimes the experts here get a laugh. Sometimes, when the complaint is from a disabled person, the experts will call an airline and say, "Hey, you won't believe the letter I got ..." and demand a quick response. Mostly, though, they nod in sympathy. That's about all they can do besides send a pamphlet about passenger rights and enter the outrage in the computer. They look for words like "inane," "lunacy," "criminality" and "never" -- as in, "I will never fly that airline again."

The office records passenger perceptions, not complete accounts of what happened. What people complain about is almost never a violation of government rules. Still, the temptation to say, "Listen, Bub, get a life," is rare; the minimum tenure here is 20 years, a sign that Strickman and six colleagues who work complaints against airlines have patience.

The flying public, too, has patience; people write as a last resort, perhaps in the hope that the vote they take against the airline will increase pressure for change. Or maybe to get past their furor.

It wasn't until American Airlines made the same mistake twice that a Tampa woman wrote the letter Strickman now picks up to read:

Sept. 2, 1999

My husband arrived in Istanbul for a two-week stay without his luggage ...

According to the letter, the traveler had been separated from his luggage in a mix-up over the connecting flight from Tampa to Miami. When he arrived without it, his wife appealed in vain to seven agents to send the bags direct from Miami to Istanbul on the next day's flight.

Instead, American Airlines sent the bags to New York for a same-day flight to Turkey. A livery car picked up the bags at Kennedy Airport, but never delivered them to La Guardia for the overseas flight.

"American had a lost bag in its possession and a simple solution," she wrote. "Is this any way to run an airline?"

Lured by low fares

After the government ended regulation of routes and services in 1978, low fares made air travel more affordable for ordinary people.

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