With two major airlines -- United and US Airways -- in bankruptcy protection and Delta Air Lines creeping ever closer, passengers are increasingly worried about some fundamental issues of air travel such as aircraft safety, customer service and transferring of tickets.
Whenever an airline plunges into bankruptcy proceedings, or moves to the verge, the Federal Aviation Administration automatically increases the level of surveillance of the carrier's maintenance operations.
FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said United, US Airways and Delta are on the FAA's "heightened surveillance list," which means the airlines' ramp operations, training, recordkeeping and maintenance facilities are inspected more often than usual. Stepped-up inspections also occur when an airline begins seeking pay cuts from its employees, Duquette says. All three carriers have sought billions of dollars in pay and benefits cuts.
Customer service typically takes a hit when airlines begin slashing workers' wages. Morale gets bruised and passengers see the difference at the ticket counter and on board their flights. United has asked for still more concessions from workers in its bid to obtain financing to emerge from Chapter 11 reorganization. The airline's employees gave up about $2.5 billion in pay and benefits when the airline filed for bankruptcy protection nearly two years ago. Last week, the majority of US Airways' 28,000 employees were forced by a bankruptcy court to accept a 21 percent pay cut through February. Employees there gave up about $1.2 billion during US Airways' first Chapter 11 filing two years ago.
"The quality of customer service has already started to go down -- not just at US Airways. Airlines just don't want to pay for labor," said Pam Terry, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 2000, which represents US Airways' airport customer service agents and club workers.
She said 10 of 170 US Airways agents at Reagan National Airport have decided to retire by year-end as a result of the airline's current financial troubles. To make up for a loss in manpower at the counters, airlines are rolling out a growing number of electronic ticketing kiosks in airports and sending more travelers to the Internet.
Legislation was enacted following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that requires airlines to honor tickets on a defunct carrier for a fee of no more than $25 each way. The legislation was put forward in anticipation of troubles in the airline industry following the attacks. It is set to expire Nov. 19, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have proposed extending it. Lawmakers are expected to vote on the legislation when Congress reconvenes in mid-November.
If the legislation is not extended, airlines will determine for themselves whether to honor their competitors' tickets and how much of a fee to charge.
No Coffee or Tea: A US Airways Airbus A320 had a full day of operation yesterday without running water aboard. The aircraft took off from Reagan National for New Orleans, then returned to National and departed for Pittsburgh then on to Denver. The plane had bottled water but no water for coffee or tea. The lavatory sinks were dry, and the airline offered moist towelettes for passengers to clean their hands. The toilets operated because they were on a different system.
US Airways spokesman David Castelveter said the aircraft had a mechanical problem and was scheduled to be fixed later that evening.
"Rather than cancel the flight and disrupt the plans of travelers, we will fly the route to get the airplane into maintenance," he said.
US Airways Relaxes Shuttle Fee: After complaints from some of its most frequent travelers and its airport employees, US Airways last week decided to drop a $10 fee for purchases of shuttle tickets at the counter.
US Airways, like most of the major airlines, decided to implement a $10 fee on all tickets bought at its airport ticket counters in an effort to raise cash. But US Airways discovered that because the majority of its shuttle passengers buy their tickets at the counters, the fees became a major problem for frequent shuttle passengers and the employees who deal with them. It didn't help that Delta decided against implementing the fee, leaving US Airways at a competitive disadvantage.
"Our customers and airport employees were upset about the fees," said B. Ben Baldanza, head of marketing for US Airways. "We didn't want to disadvantage our walk-up shuttle passengers."
Halle Wasn't an Option?: A survey of 400 business travelers by Hilton Garden Inns in El Segundo and Valencia, Calif., recently found that the majority of the respondents, or 28 percent, said they would liked to be tucked in at night by either Brad Pitt or Carmen Electra. The survey provided a list of celebrities for respondents to choose from, including Colin Farrell, Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman. Four percent of respondents wrote in their spouse.
The survey also found that business travelers most often forget to bring along a cell phone charger, followed by razors and toothpaste.
Question of the Week: Have you ever had difficulty getting an airline to honor your electronic ticket after your flight on another airline was canceled? If so, what happened? Send your comments, along with your name and a daytime telephone number, to email@example.com.