Harsh Report on Airline Service Is Same Old News

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Disgruntled air travelers will hardly be caught off guard by the latest news: Airline service is in a pitiful state. According to a new study from the University of Omaha and Wichita State University, all service indicators, from on-time performance to general passenger treatment, fell to dismal levels during the 1999 travel season. Airlines can give themselves a very small pat on the back for improving one aspect of the travel experience: Baggage-handling complaints were slightly lower in '99 than in the previous year.

As any airline passenger knows, public anger with the airlines has reached nearly toxic levels in recent years, and it's possible that this pervasive sense of indignation may have contributed to the latest numbers. Has service actually worsened again, or has heightened awareness of bad service made passengers more likely to complain about perceived slights? It doesn't really matter. The airlines are facing what should be a public relations nightmare, but even this latest stream of damning evidence doesn't hurt them that much. In its own mind, the industry has already demonstrated a good faith effort to improve the quality of air travel by issuing a proposed "Passenger Bill of Rights" in December. While it remains to be seen whether any actual improvements will emerge from that document, the airlines have the country in their grip. Passengers have very little recourse in their battle with the industry; the economy is good and more people are flying — for business and pleasure — than ever before. The airlines know perfectly well that we're stuck. After all, what are dissatisfied leisure fliers going to do — walk to their European vacation?