Airline passengers will need to pack plenty of patience

PERSONAL FINANCE

April 16, 2006|By EILEEN AMBROSE | EILEEN AMBROSE,SUN COLUMNIST

If you had a bad flight experience recently, you're traveling in growing company.

A recently released Airline Quality Rating survey for 2005 found that carriers overall were more likely to run behind schedule, bump passengers and mishandle baggage than in the year before. Passenger complaints also rose, with nearly half of them dealing with flight problems or baggage issues.

"Just prepare yourself. This summer will be a lot worse," said Dean Headley, an associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of the Airline Quality survey.

With the economy humming along, more consumers will have money to travel, Headley said. And with gas prices rising, more travelers will figure they might as well fly as drive.

Demand is growing while airlines are operating with thousands fewer employees, so the stress level will be rising for those helping us to get from Point A to Point B.

With dissatisfaction on the rise and the heavy travel season ready to take off, it's a good time to remember what rights you have and to figure how best to deal with problems that arise.

Legal rights are few and include:

Compensation for being involuntarily bumped, which happens when airlines overbook flights. Airlines must first ask for volunteers. If not enough people raise their hands, you can end up being bumped against your will.

You can always ask for a refund and arrange another flight on your own.

So says the Department of Transportation. But you might be entitled to compensation for the inconvenience if the airline makes other transportation arrangements for you.

How much money you receive, if any, depends on how late you arrive at your final destination.

No money changes hands if the airline gets you where you're headed within an hour of your original arrival time.

You're entitled to the cost of your one-way fare - not to exceed $200 - if you arrive one to two hours behind schedule on domestic flights and one to four hours on international trips. That amount doubles - but to no more than $400 -if you arrive more than two hours behind schedule on a domestic trip and more than four hours late on international flights.

Up to a maximum of $2,800 to compensate for delayed, damaged or lost luggage on a domestic flight.

Though not required, airlines have other ways to soothe unhappy passengers.

Some will pay for meals or phone calls when flights are delayed by hours. Others will offer cash for necessities when luggage is delayed, or reimburse passengers later. Or, an airline might pick up the cost of a hotel room when a flight is canceled and a passenger can't be booked on another flight the same day.

"Airlines have always been at liberty to exercise a fair amount of discretion when a flight is canceled or delayed," said Tim Winship, publisher of Frequent- Flier.com, an online provider of travel information. "As a result, you will see a lot of variables out there in terms of how people are actually handled."

A copy of an airline's policies should be available at the check-in area or often is posted online, experts said.

Discount airlines are the least likely to offer perks, and even others are less generous these days because of bottom-line pressures, said Todd Curtis, president of AirSafe.com Foundation, which offers travel advice online.

Still, the industry is competitive enough that airlines don't want to lose customers and they may make concessions if passengers ask. That's particularly true if the passenger is a member of the carrier's frequent-flier program or a repeat, high-profit customer, Winship said.

To make an effective complaint, state the problem clearly and politely, and tell the airline how it can make amends. Be prepared to negotiate.

"It's like you are in a bazaar," Curtis said. "If you think it's reasonable, take the deal and walk away from it. If not, don't take the deal."

Don't be unreasonable, such as expecting the airline to pick up the tab for three nights at a resort.

"Unreasonable requests almost always are sent to the back burner," Headley said.

One of the best opportunities to negotiate is when the carrier asks for volunteers to give up their seats. Some consumers even book flights at times when they're most likely to get bumped, so they can negotiate for free tickets, frequent-flier miles or upgrades, experts said.

If you want to avoid problems in the first place this summer, get to the airport early. Book early flights, so if the plane is delayed or canceled, you stand a better chance of getting on another flight later the same day, Winship said.

"The watchword for this summer is going to be `patience,'" he said. "It's not going to be pretty out there."

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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