US launches crackdown on shoddy airlines

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The Independent Online
AS ANYONE who does it will tell you, flying internally in the United States these days is rarely a pleasant experience. Glamour? Forget it. Think Greyhound - and peanuts (or worse, pretzels) and bruised knees. Passengers, however, are getting fed up and politicians are beginning to notice.

All of a sudden, Washington is thick with proposals aimed at expanding passengers' rights. Hearings began on Capitol Hill yesterday on two separate bills on the subject, while Al Gore, the Vice-President, unveiled ideas of his own at the White House. Taken together, the various measures would be designed to send a single message to the airlines - give us a little more respect.

Mr Gore, whose eyes are now on the 2000 presidential race, wants to see a doubling of the financial compensation passengers should be paid when they find themselves "bumped" from a flight when they have reserved seats and checked in on time. He is similarly asking for a 100 per cent increase in the money airlines should pay out when they lose luggage.

Common to all the proposals are requirements for more honesty from the airlines, both about the exact journeys passengers will be taking - owning up, for example, when a code-share flight is being operated by another carrier not named on the ticket - and about what is going on when problems arise. It is a "carrot and stick approach", a White House official said, "making information accessible to the travelling public as well as providing for compensation for unfair treatment".

The hostility towards the carriers has been brewing for a long time. Last year, complaints registered with the government rose 25 per cent from 1997. Two incidents this winter, however, helped to unleash public anger.

One was a strike by American Airlines pilots during a holiday week last month. The other involved mistakes made by Northwest Airlines on a snowy day in January when dozens of jets landed at a blizzard-bound Detroit airport only to get stuck in a taxi-way jam. Some passengers were trapped in their planes for up to seven hours with no food or drink and overflowing toilets. Several hundred have now joined in a class-action lawsuit against the carrier.

Defenders of the airlines point out that it was deregulation 21 years ago that put profit above service in the industry. Since 1978, the numbers of passengers in US skies has doubled. Moreover, whatever else, the industry has a good safety record; last year there was not a single death among passengers flying domestically in the US on commercial carriers.