Two weeks ago we
wrote about how the incident with
in early January -- hundreds of passengers were basically trapped for hours on airplanes at Detroit's Metropolitan Airport -- was fueling the political fires in Washington. This one incident, more than anything, it seemed, was serving as the flashpoint behind more than one bill introduced in the
in the name of "passengers' rights."
This issue is now playing out, and the din surrounding it is so loud you'd think a 747 was directly overhead. Testimony from hostile and angry passengers, as well as industry representatives, flooded Capitol Hill this week.
The scorecard as of Friday? Passengers 10, Airlines 0.
"We were the victims, and we were being shamed for not having the proper attitude, " Barbara Plecas of Walled Lake, Mich., was quoted as saying as she described being trapped on a Northwest airplane for about seven hours one weekend day in January. Other passengers described incidents involving unaccompanied minors, delays, lost baggage, and almost any other problem imaginable.
Industry officials also testified. Carol Hallett, CEO of the
Air Transport Association
, which represents the interests of the airline industry, testified Thursday. While Hallett was her usual poised and credible self, she again basically side-stepped the questions dealing with customer service. She attempted to deflect the discussion about passenger complaints, and stressed the issues of a flawed and antiquated Air Traffic Control system.
Granted, the ATC needs improvements. And lots of them.
But this is not the issue being debated. Her testimony did little to indicate whether the airline industry has even the inclination, or the desire, to develop clear programs and plans to address the bulk of the current complaints.
Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the
Business Travel Coalition
, in a letter sent to airline CEOs on Friday, said he agreed with what we said here two weeks ago -- that we were leery of Congressional attempts to legislate customer service for the airlines, or to attempt to fine airlines for flights that were delayed.
We suggested that the airlines themselves had best understand how deep-seated this growing public resentment is, and act sooner rather than later.
Mitchell -- who usually finds himself going to bat against the airlines, as his organization advocates lowered business fares for travelers -- also advocates industry self-reform. Citing Hallett's testimony, he said, "ATA's testimony stated that airlines 'reaffirm' their commitment to customer service. This is analogous to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Such a posture only serves to delay and worsen the crisis at hand."
Mitchell has proposed to airline CEOs that airlines (1) acknowledge congressional concerns in a public and meaningful way, (2) form a self-policing watchdog group to set effective consumer guidelines, and (3) commit to ongoing monitoring of adherance to those guidelines.
When asked on Friday what he thought the chances were of the airlines doing these things, Mitchell responded, "admittedly low. It's the old horse-to-water scenario."
Well, you know us. We refuse to give up. So, we are going to try to make the horse drink.
acknowledge and deal with the situation. While the industry can say that, statistically speaking, the number of complaints lodged against the airlines is small considering the number of passenger miles that are flown each year, that reasoning goes nowhere in this hostile environment.
As one industry person said to us on Friday, "It's kind of like
. You know, if he had just come out up front and told us what had happened, and acknowledged it, and begged for our forgiveness, no one would probably even be thinking about it now. But now, his credibility is shot."
And so it will be for the airline industry if it doesn't apologize -- and make attempts at taking corrective action.
As Gordon Bethune,
CEO said this week, "I don't think we need the government to tell us that it's against the law not to deliver your baggage, nor do we need the government to say it's against the law to run out of fuel while you're flying. We don't
to do either -- leave it to the marketplace."
Sounds good, Gordon. Now, just get all your CEO buds to do something constructive.