Airlines, beware. That unassuming guy with the laptop in Seat 11B could be an auditor from the Department of Transportation Inspector General's Office.

As of Dec. 15, the nation's airlines will start to implement the Airline Customer Service Commitment, an agreement they inked in June with members of Congress, promising they would improve customer service voluntarily in lieu of federal regulations that would have spelled out how they had to offer decent, honest service to their customers.

The agreement, which grew out of failed legislation called a passengers' bill of rights, was a disappointment to consumer groups and irate fliers who wanted to see something with teeth in it to correct complaints about canceled and delayed flights that happen without good explanation, lost baggage, and wide ranges in fares for the same flight. An incident on a Northwest Airlines flight when passengers felt as if they were held hostage on a plane during a blizzard last winter gave wings to the issue of legislating manners for the airline industry.

The overall agreement covers 12 general areas. Airlines promise to make "reasonable efforts" to change some of the things that annoy travelers most: slow returns of lost baggage, not offering information about why a flight isn't taking off, and stranding customers on planes for long periods without necessities such as food, water and toilets.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who favored regulation rather than the voluntary plan, said of the agreement: "It's not worth the paper it's printed on." Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, said consumer interests were not represented in the negotiations.

"The airlines got first-class treatment in Congress and consumers got third-class treatment," Harshbarger said.

The airlines don't deny that they wanted to avoid the regulations that would have grown out of the several bills that were pending in Congress. But they also know they must prove themselves or the prospect of regulation will be back.

Anticipating the largest audit it has ever done, the IG's office is revving its engines to fan out and monitor service--the improvements and the disasters. The 19 auditors assigned to the job expect extensive travel, tight deadlines and lots of interest in the two reports they will submit to Congress--the first in June, the second on Dec. 31, 2000.

"The objective of this audit is to examine the Air Transport Association member air carriers' customer service plans and evaluate the extent to which each air carrier has met all commitments under its plan," the IG announced in a recent memo. Auditors also will determine whether airlines changed the fine print on the back of their tickets to reflect the commitments they have made to their customers.

"We want to look at how they are measuring it. Are they keeping their own scorecard?" said Alexis Stefani, DOT assistant inspector general for auditing.

Not all the details of the audit have been worked out. But it has been decided that teams of auditors will "visit" two carriers each and fly them a lot. Auditors will order tickets, ask for refunds and see how long it takes to get one, get bumped off flights, listen for the frequency of announcements explaining delays, and see whether their complaints get answered.

There will be interviews with top officials at the airlines, reviews of their internal data and checks to see whether airlines make changes in their systems. There is some consideration being given to a hot line that passengers could use to leave tips for the IG.

"They contend they never cancel flights for economic reasons, but what systems do they use to decide what flight will be canceled?" said Robin Hunt, the IG's director of aviation security and infrastructure.

In addition, the airlines will be under the microscope of the IG for several other issues--all related to customer service. Other areas being examined are the sources of delays and cancellations, overbooking, and whether it's a deceptive practice to offer different fares on the telephone than on the Internet.

David Fuscus, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, said the subjects of the audits are complicated, involving pricing and marketing.

"Overbooking allows us to ticket efficiently and keep down airline prices. And vouchers [for free flights] are very popular with passengers," Fuscus said.

In preparation for the deadline, about a dozen carriers have already filed their plans with the DOT, which is reviewing them. They vary widely from carrier to carrier in the details they offer and the promises they make.

United Airlines, for example, said in its plan it will provide the best available information regarding "known delays, cancellations and diversions." Northwest promises announcements every 15 minutes before boarding and five minutes after the flight's scheduled departure time by the captain. American Airlines' plan calls for "timely and frequent updates."

Consumers who want to read the plans for themselves might have some searching to do. Many of the airlines have them posted on their Web sites, but it takes some clicking to get there. Others have complicated, separate Web addresses.

To make it easier on consumers, the DOT hopes to have links on its own Web site to each carrier's plan. The DOT said it also will announce in a week or so that it is doubling the airlines' minimum liability for lost bags from $1,250 to $2,500--one of the changes airlines supported in the agreement.

And one DOT official hoped that, in their spirit of commitment to service, the airlines would not regard the $2,500 as a ceiling but as a floor in doing what is "reasonable" for consumers.

OUT FOR COMMENT:

The Consumer Product Safety Commission voted 2 to 1 yesterday to require bunk-bed manufacturers to meet a mandatory standard as of July 2000 for designing and testing the safety of the beds, which have been blamed for an average of 10 deaths annually, mostly when young children's heads get entrapped in guardrails, headboards and ladders. Ann Brown, chairman of the CPSC, said the voluntary standard was not adequate and recalls have been "never-ending." The new standard will give the agency stronger enforcement authority and set spacing requirements for openings in the top and bottom bunks and continuous rails on both sides of the top bunk. There are about 8 million bunk beds in use.