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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

For the low price, people happily ate peanuts on upstart but timely airlines like People Express. Fierce competition led to mergers and consolidations of such airlines in 1987 and, now, two decades after deregulation, profits are at record highs and customer patience at new lows.

To help make a $6 billion profit last year, airlines overbooked, eliminated hot meals and even shortened the pitch of coach seats, so that people emerged from seven-hour flights in pain. In chat rooms and on newspaper pages, some travelers said they would rather see a dentist than get on a plane. And with flights running an average 75 percent full, leg room on planes has become a national issue.

One inquiry handled in Strickman's office this day is from an airline wanting to know if it could be charged with discrimination for refusing the bulkhead seat to a passenger who has a doctor's note saying he has extra-long legs.

With 650 million people flying every year, air travel has almost become mass transportation, Strickman says. Amazingly, though, 70 percent of planes arrive on time. He himself, like many people, has never had a problem. According to government brochures, most airline trips are uneventful.

But the fun of getting there, the glamour of air travel, is over. For people who fly, the anxiety begins on the drive to the airport when signs for satellite parking say "full." A decade ago, 80 percent of planes arrived on time. Mishandled baggage was rare. Planes were only 65 percent full. And ticket agents, well ...

Consider another letter from Strickman's stack:

Aug. 17, 1999

The case of the ruined vacation, as related by a travel agent ...

Two friends got in line at 5: 45 p.m. for a 7: 10 p.m. flight from Detroit to Anchorage. After a half-hour of no movement, the men approached first-class check-in where three Northwest agents were "visiting." They were told to get back in line, since the agents only serve first-class passengers. At 6: 45 p.m., the pair still in line, the plane doors were closed. They were told rudely they should have arrived for check-in earlier. Eventually they got another flight to Anchorage. Six days into their hunting trip, their luggage arrived. "Detroit Metro lacks sufficient personnel," their travel agent wrote.

(The government will remind Northwest that a few more employees could have eliminated this complaint and helped improve the airline's rank, Strickman says.)

The days of running into the airport and getting onto a plane 20 minutes before takeoff are long past.

If they make it on board, people still expect to get somewhere on time, to have enough leg room, to be spoken to politely, and to be served something more than pretzels. Strickman thinks about it this way -- if you like the Hyatt for its fluffy pillows and chocolate and the Hyatt stops fluffing the pillows and scrimps on chocolate, you want the chance to go down the street to the Sheraton. You want the option to go someplace else.

No options

When passengers are told to expect a short delay on their Boston-to-Paris flight and 24 hours later they are just boarding -- they don't have that option. This communication failure is why people get angry and conclude that airlines lie. It's why they complain loudly about delays due to weather that they might have suffered stoically in another place and time.

What generally happens is something like this: 25 people about to board are told their plane has mechanical difficulties. Really, though, it's the plane two gates down that has mechanical problems. While the 25 people watch, 100 passengers from two gates down stream past them onto their plane, which then takes off.

It may be easier and cheaper for the airline to reroute 25 passengers than the 100 who really were about to board a defective plane. These are operations decisions. And maybe generic mechanical problems is the best information airline personnel have.

When people can't get good, useful, timely information, they can't behave like rational consumers. It's the bait-and-switch issue, rearing its ugly head. The last time Americans thought they put that behind them was in the consumer movement of the 1960s.

Had they known, the 25 passengers could have 1) found another plane or 2) selected another airline. (Experienced fliers carry cell phones to call airlines direct -- they find out about airline delays sooner that way. Plus, they can re-route themselves.) Otherwise, when the flight is canceled, passengers find themselves waiting hours in long lines.

This is when they start griping about food, leg room, ill-mannered agents and lost bags -- each complaint they include in their letters warrants a separate entry in the government's computers. There's a high correlation between delays and complaints about service.

Here in the government's complaint office, this is old news. The airlines set up task forces and decide whether it's worth the money to fix their problems. "It's a competition issue," Strickman says.

He begins his calls; once again the government will remind the airlines these issues are entirely within their control. This is, after all, a customer service business. The rate of complaints rose three times in July alone. August complaints are more of the same: flight problems and customer service issues, particularly the timeliness or quality of information.

And so it goes, in this, the year the airline industry has dubbed "the year of aviation."

Complaint line, Consumers may register complaints about airlines by telephone, mail or e-mail.

The 24-hour complaint line is 202-366-2220.

The mail address is:

Aviation Consumer Protection Division U.S. Department of Transportation

Room 4107, C-75

Washington, D.C. 20590

E-mail address: airconsumer@ost.dot.gov

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