A new government report confirms what many travelers already suspected -- 2006 was a tough year to fly.
The performance of U.S. airlines in categories such as on-time arrivals, baggage handling and passenger bumping was the worst in years, according to the annual industry report card released Wednesday by the Department of Transportation.
Despite improvements in some areas -- flight cancellations and overall consumer complaints actually fell compared with 2005 -- some experts say the numbers bear out the feeling of many travelers that flying has become an ordeal.
After years of financial turmoil and cutbacks, "the airlines just can't provide the same kind of service experience that they did 10 years ago," said Dean Headley, an associate professor at Wichita State University and coauthor of an annual survey of airline quality.
The carriers blame the nation's outdated air traffic control system and weather-related disruptions for much of the bad publicity that has buffeted the industry.
Winter storms in the Midwest in November and Colorado in December closed major airline hubs, stranding thousands of passengers. And a string of violent storms that hit the Dallas-Fort Worth area Dec. 29 forced American Airlines to divert 121 flights to other airports, where some passengers sat on parked planes for eight hours or more before being allowed to leave.
In addition, the rise in baggage complaints is tied to new security rules banning liquids and gels in carry-on bags that went into effect in August after an alleged plot to bomb airliners was uncovered in Britain.
That resulted in a 20% rise in checked baggage, although the numbers shrank somewhat after the Transportation Security Administration relaxed the rules.
But critics also point to issues related to the airlines' efforts to recover from the steep financial downturn that hit the industry after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Payrolls have been slashed -- industry employment is down almost 9% since 2003 -- with many of those cuts coming in the customer service ranks. Crowded planes have added to fliers' discomfort: The percentage of seats sold hit record levels of 80% or higher at some airlines last year as they reduced flights to save money and prop up airfares.
In another cost-saving measure, airlines now charge for meals in coach class and have dropped them on many short-haul flights. Some carriers, such as United Airlines, are charging a premium for seats with more legroom or for choice aisle seats in the front of the cabin. And a raft of services that used to be free now cost money, including using a paper ticket, making reservations by phone and bringing pets on board.
"The airlines have nickel-and-dimed passengers in every conceivable way to stem the gushing red ink," airline consultant Vaughn Cordle said.
From the standpoint of the bottom line, it has worked. The industry's trade association estimates that U.S. carriers earned $2 billion to $3 billion last year after losing $35 billion in the previous five years.
But the cost in convenience and comfort has been high, Cordle said.
"I dread going to the airport now," he said. "I dread the check-in. I dread the anxiety of the crowd waiting to get through security and get on board. And once I'm on board, I worry about whether I can get a bottle of water."
The new Transportation Department numbers tell of such concerns.
About 75% of domestic flights arrived on time last year, the lowest rate since 2000, according to the report. Among individual airports, Los Angeles International ranked 15th, with almost 77% of flights arriving on time. That was down from a year earlier, when LAX ranked ninth with an 80% on-time rate. (One of LAX's four runways has been out of service for repairs since July, adding to delays.)
Bags were lost, stolen or misdirected at a rate of 6.7 per 1,000 passengers systemwide, up from 6.4 per 1,000 in 2005 and the highest since 1990. Bumping -- when passengers are involuntarily denied boarding because a flight is overbooked -- rose to 1 per 10,000 passengers, up from 0.9 per 10,000 last year and the highest since 2000.
On the positive side, flight cancellations fell to 1.7% of scheduled departures, down from 1.9% last year and the lowest since 2003. And overall customer complaints to the government fell almost 5% from 2005.
Airlines say their studies have consistently shown that amenities such as food service and blankets rank far down on the list of customers' priorities. A J.D. Power & Associates survey last year likewise found that air travelers valued customer service above "peanuts and pillows."
Steve Roll, a manager for a Denver pharmaceutical company who was at LAX this week to catch a United flight, said making customers happy should take a back seat to keeping them safe. And passengers often are just as responsible for a bad experience as the airline, he said.
"What usually drives people's misery is their own poor preparation. It's usually something that is self-induced," said Roll, citing travelers who arrive 10 minutes before their flights and expect to breeze through the ticket line.
"When I normally see someone who's really upset, it's because they don't fly a lot." For more frequent fliers, he said, "it's just a different set of expectations."
And in the view of aviation consultant Michael Boyd, the airlines are doing what they are supposed to be doing: filling their planes and making money.
Boyd contends that heavily publicized debacles such as American's mass diversion of flights two days before New Year's Eve give a distorted view of the air travel system.
"That doesn't mean the airlines can't do a better job," he said. "But some people make it sound like going to the airport is like going back to Vietnam, and that's just not true."
Napa, Calif., resident Kate Hanni disagrees. Hanni, husband Tim and their two sons were flying from San Francisco to Mobile, Ala., by way of Dallas-Fort Worth on Dec. 29. The flight was diverted to Austin, Texas, by heavy thunderstorms that closed the Dallas-Fort Worth airport for nine hours.
Hanni and her fellow passengers on Flight 1348 sat on the tarmac for more than eight hours, running out of food and bottled beverages before the pilot, acting against orders, pulled up to a gate and deposited the passengers at the nearly deserted airport.
Passengers on other diverted American flights who endured similar experiences have banded together to lobby Congress for an airline passenger "bill of rights." Hanni, a real estate broker, has done dozens of radio and TV interviews to describe her ordeal and talked with Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) about an airline consumer protection bill.
"Now that the airlines' profits are higher, they should be taking those profits and putting them back into the airline to make sure people are having a satisfactory experience," said Hanni, who is forming a nonprofit group to push the cause. Its website, at , has collected almost 2,000 signatures in support of the proposed bill of rights.
Thompson, who is working out the details of a proposed bill, said "there's a tremendous amount of support for this."
American, which has sent out travel vouchers for as much as $500 to more than 4,600 passengers trapped on planes that were grounded Dec. 29, has called the storms a "once-in-a-lifetime situation."
"We do not feel there is a need for specific legislation such as this," said spokesman Tim Smith this week. "We would consider that to be an overreaction to what statistically is an anomaly."
Times staff writer Ashley Surdin contributed to this report.
Top 5 complaints
Numbers of air travel complaints to the Department of Transportation in 2006.
Flight problems 2,162
Customer service 1,019
and boarding 1,007
Source: Department of Transportation
Los Angeles Times
Among other things, backers of an airline passengers "bill of rights" want carriers to:
* Respond to complaints within 24 hours and resolve them within two weeks.
* Promptly notify passengers of flight delays, diversions and cancellations.
* Ensure that no airplane sits on the tarmac for more than three hours without passengers being given a chance to deplane.
* Provide food, water and medical attention (when needed) during lengthy delays.
* List chronically delayed flights on the Internet.
* Refund 150% of ticket costs to bumped passengers or those delayed more than 12 hours.
* Establish a passenger review committee to investigate complaints.
Source: Coalition for Airline
Passengers Bill of Rights
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