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Amid Labor Day weekend travel surge, airlines promise better customer service

Travelers rest on the ground while waiting for their flights at Los Angeles International Airport on July 1. On Thursday, the U.S. Transportation Department is rolling out a new website that will allow passengers to see what they're legally entitled to when an airline cancels or significantly delays their flight.
Frederic J. Brown
AFP via Getty Images
Travelers rest on the ground while waiting for their flights at Los Angeles International Airport on July 1. On Thursday, the U.S. Transportation Department is rolling out a new website that will allow passengers to see what they're legally entitled to when an airline cancels or significantly delays their flight.

As we head into the last busy travel weekend of summer, several major airlines are promising to deliver better customer service, especially if they can't deliver you to your destination on time, including providing meals and hotel rooms to those passengers stranded by significant flight delays or cancellations when those disruptions are the airlines' fault.

The airlines, including Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest and United, are committing to the customer service improvements just as the U.S. Department of Transportation rolls out a new website on Thursday that will allow air travelers to see what they're legally entitled to when an airline cancels or significantly delays their flight. They'll also be able to compare airlines' customer service policies side by side.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told NPR in an interview last week that this summer's air travel chaos, with widespread flight delays and cancellations, is prompting the action.

Data from the flight-tracking site FlightAware.com shows that since Memorial Day weekend, airlines have canceled more than 50,000 flights, while more than half a million flights have been delayed.

Additionally, Transportation Department figures show that the leading cause of flight delays and cancellations this year has been the airlines' own operational and scheduling problems, not weather or air traffic control issues.

"The basic message [to the airlines] is to raise the bar," Buttigieg said. "Look, Americans have had experiences with cancellations, delays and poor customer service that just aren't at an acceptable level."

"We understand there are some things they're up against, extreme weather or other situations, that are beyond their control," Buttigieg added. "But a lot of things are in their control. And one of those things is how they treat customers."

The transportation secretary said there are some things airlines must do, as required by law or Transportation Department rules, including refunding airfares for canceled flights.

"If you get canceled for any reason — you don't take your flight — they have to offer you a cash refund. If you'd rather take miles or a different flight, fine. But that's up to you, not them. They've got to give you a refund. That's a basic rule," Buttigieg said.

There are also things that Buttigieg said airlines ought to do for passengers when flights are significantly delayed or canceled, like paying for meals and overnight accommodations. Right now, some airlines do and others don't, but most are not very upfront about what they'll do.

"A lot of the airlines are not quite transparent about how and when they'll take care of passengers," Buttigieg continued. "So we're going to put that information out ourselves" in the form of an online dashboard that Buttigieg said will provide clarity about passengers' rights. It will also allow travelers to see what additional services airlines have committed to provide when flights are canceled or delayed because of an airline problem, and it will enable passengers to compare carriers side by side.

The list of commitments includes "Rebook passenger on same airline at no additional cost" and "Rebook passenger on another airline at no additional cost," as well as meals, hotel accommodations and ground travel for delays of more than three hours or cancellations that strand passengers overnight.

"Picture kind of a matrix where you can see [green] check marks and [red] Xs on what each airline will or won't do," Buttigieg said. "So you can actually compare and know your rights before you choose to purchase that ticket and before you board that plane."

Just by telling the airlines that they would be publishing this information clearly and in an easy-to-view format, Biden administration officials say many airlines were spurred into improving the level of customer service that they're offering.

American, Delta, JetBlue and United have agreed to all 10 of the customer service commitments suggested. Hawaiian has agreed to nine, while Alaska and Southwest have agreed to eight. Allegiant is the only one of the 10 largest U.S. airlines listed on the dashboard that did not agree to provide any customer service commitment.

While some travelers and consumer advocates applaud the administration's effort to prod the airlines to improve customer service, some are wary.

"We certainly are holding out hope that they [the airlines] will do the right thing," says Bill McGee of the American Economic Liberties Project. "But I think this industry has a long track record, and I've been around this industry myself for 37 years, working in it, writing about it and advocating for passengers. And I got to tell you, the track record is very poor."

"Maybe some positive [customer service] developments" will come out of the dashboard, he says, "but the fact is, that is not nearly enough. ... The term 'lipstick on a pig' comes to mind when we talk about this dashboard."

He says all the things the airlines are promising to do should be required under federal rules or law so the airlines can't backtrack and are forced to deliver on their promises.

The new airline consumer dashboard is being released as huge crowds of travelers are expected at the nation's airports. The number of people flying is expected to be at or even above the pre-pandemic level of Labor Day weekend in 2019.

The travel-booking app Hopper predicts 12.6 million people will fly between Thursday and Monday, Sept. 5.

In addition to long lines and crowded gates, those going through several major airports on Thursday will encounter off-duty airline pilots picketing. Both the Air Line Pilots Association, the union representing pilots at Delta, United, Spirit and JetBlue, and the Allied Pilots Association, which represents pilots at American, are doing the informational picketing to call on airline management to fix the operational problems that have led to widespread delays and cancellations this summer and to invest more in their workers.

The pilots say they also want to draw attention to scheduling issues that they say have led to huge increases in incidents of pilot fatigue this year.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.

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