Flight risk: Airlines need to clean up their act on delays

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Anyone who has flown recently did not need to read a new report on abysmal airline service to believe it.

The U.S. Transportation Department reported last week that the nation's airlines had their lowest rate of on-time flights in 13 years, and -- surprise, surprise -- US Airways' record was the worst of the lot.

It seems most passengers have a horror story to tell. The Post-Gazette has recounted a number of them in recent months, and far more have been repeated to neighbors and friends.

A 70-year-old Butler County woman spent five hours waiting on a plane for takeoff only to end up in New York's LaGuardia terminal for the night.

Staff writer Marlene Parrish missed a flight to Singapore because she couldn't get to Newark in time.

Travel editor David Bear decided he couldn't depend on air service from Pittsburgh to get him to Baltimore's airport in a timely way to catch an international departure, so he drove.

The Transportation Department said the culprits behind the delays were extreme weather, system problems and factors within the control of the individual airlines, like maintenance and crew issues. The nation's 20 largest carriers also had more trouble handling baggage than they did a year ago, with nearly eight passengers per 1,000 having a problem. And people aren't keeping their complaints to themselves -- the Transportation Department heard from 1,094 of them in June alone, a 43 percent increase over the previous June.

Help may come from the Federal Aviation Administration's development of a new air traffic control system, but it's a long way off. In the meantime, the FAA predicts that delays will increase 62 percent by 2014.

This is intolerable. Several bills would mandate certain rights for airline passengers, such as the right to disembark if a plane has been on the tarmac for more than three hours and the right to timely information about delays and cancellations. Some consumer advocates say airlines should be forced to generously compensate passengers if a flight is canceled.

These remedies, while favorable to consumers, would further rattle the industry's shaky financial bottom line. But if the airlines don't want to be told what to do, they must come up with some solutions of their own.


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