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Airline Industry

With fewer flights, airlines' customer service improves

Hugo Mart√≠n  Sep 28, 2009

A funny thing has happened during the airline industry's economic slump.

The airlines have actually improved customer service.

During the first seven months of the year, nearly 79% of flights in the U.S. were on time, compared with 74% for the same period last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Reports of mishandled baggage -- including lost or damaged luggage -- dropped to 3.89 claims per 1,000 passengers in the busy vacation month of July from 4.87 a year earlier, according to the bureau.

The overall number of complaints filed against airlines for such problems as lost baggage, oversold flights, cranky reservation workers and missing pets also dropped to 0.98 complaint per 100,000 passenger trips this July from 1.25 in July 2008.

Conventional wisdom suggests an obvious reason for the improved service: With fewer passengers and flights, the airlines have more time and resources to spend on customer service. U.S. airlines carried 8.8% fewer domestic passengers and 9.6% fewer international passengers in the first six months of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008.

"The biggest contribution you have for this is that you have fewer airplanes flying," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst for Forrester Research Inc.

But airline representatives say other factors are also at play, such as fewer weather delays, improved flight schedules and a drop in the number of bags carried per passenger.

"It's really a compendium of factors," said David A. Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Assn., the trade group that represents most major airlines in the country.

For example, more airlines have scheduled bigger time cushions between landing and departures. That makes it easier for them to stay on schedule.

As for lost or delayed luggage, Harteveldt said new luggage fees added by several airlines recently have prompted travelers to check fewer bags. Airlines lose fewer bags if they have fewer to move, he said.

Airlines also credit improved technology and upgraded baggage sorting systems for the lower mishandled-baggage rates.

But not everyone sees an improvement in airline service.

On a United Airlines flight from Los Angeles to New York in July, Neil Richline and his wife, Marilyn Fils, lost a bag that contained medication to treat Richline's diabetes.

Fils said a United Airlines representative encouraged the couple to buy what they needed to replace the lost items and promised to reimburse them for the cost but did not mention a $50-per-day limit. The couple ended up spending $750 for the five-day trip and got only $250 from United Airlines.

What upset Fils about the ordeal was that when she tried to complain, she was directed to United Airlines contract workers at a call center who simply recited the airline policy, she said.

"It was the appalling attitude that really upset us," she said.

The good news for the couple: United Airlines ultimately agreed to reimburse them for the entire $750 claim after a Times reporter contacted United about the complaint.

New fee added on busiest days

If you plan to fly during the holidays, expect to feel the sting of a new $10 fee, but only if you fly on some of the busiest days of the season.

According to Farecompare .com, Delta, U.S. Airways, Northwest and American Airlines announced the new charge for most flights scheduled for the Sunday after Thanksgiving (Nov. 29) and on Jan. 2 and Jan. 3.

The fee will probably appear on bills as a fuel surcharge, but called the charge a way for struggling airlines to collect badly needed revenue.

Flu, pneumonia shots at Burbank

Flu season is just around the corner, but you don't have to drop into a clinic or a doctor's office for a vaccination.

Bob Hope Airport in Burbank became the latest airport this week to offer employees and passengers flu and pneumonia shots at Terminal A.

"With so much talk about getting vaccinated, we wanted to reach out to the community this way," said Lucy Burghdorf, a spokeswoman for the airport.

The vaccinations, offered by OnSite Wellness Services of Torrance, will cost $25 for a flu shot and $45 for a pneumonia shot.

Last week, Reliant Immediate Care Medical Group, the healthcare provider that runs the clinic at Los Angeles International Airport, announced plans to offer flu shots in an LAX terminal.

How far will this trend go? Can we expect to see officials from the Transportation Safety Administration perform complete examinations at the security gate -- "Please remove your shoes, jacket and belt. Now turn your head and cough"?

With fewer flights, airlines' customer service improves
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