Airlines Could Face Standards for Service

WASHINGTON - Airlines have not kept their promises to protect passengers from travel horrors, so Congress might need to set federal standards for customer service, the top Transportation Department investigator told a House subcommittee Friday.

During the first two months of 2007, nearly one-third of commercial flights were delayed, canceled or diverted, Calvin Scovel, the department's inspector general, testified.

Some flights leave late so often that just advertising their departure time might''constitute a deceptive business practice,'' Scovel told the aviation subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

In February, for instance, US Airways Flight 154 from Philadelphia to San Francisco was late 100 percent of the time, and JetBlue Airways Flight 76 from West Palm Beach, Fla., to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport was late 96 percent of the time.

Even after such inconveniences as the delay in Austin that left passengers stuck on a runway for nine hours in an American Airlines jet, some airlines have not defined what constitutes an ''extended period of time'' for meeting the needs of customers, Scovel said. Others have set limits ranging from one to five hours, he said.

''We think it is unlikely that a passenger's definition of an extended period of time will vary depending upon which airline they are flying,'' Scovel said.

After an earlier outcry from passengers stuck for hours on a snowbound jetliner in Chicago, airlines said legislation was not needed and they would solve the problems themselves, he noted.

But several committee members said their patience was exhausted in waiting for voluntary measures to work.

''Unless the industry addresses this and addresses it now, there is going to be legislative action,'' said Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., the subcommittee chairman.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., predicted Congress will ''set a floor for customer protection'' that would mandate a minimum standard of treatment.

Airline industry officials said most of the problems are caused by weather and that federal mandates would create more problems than they would solve.

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