Airline Accountability Day: Wednesday

If major passenger airlines' PR materials can be trusted (we realize that opening tempts you to quit reading, but please bear with us), a new era of travel begins this week, when U.S. airlines guarantee improved service to all passengers.

A more weary view is that starting Wednesday, Dec. 15, airlines will face their best and last chance to avoid regulatory action by Congress. If the airlines can live up to their self-created "service commitments"--policies for improving customer service and avoiding some egregious consumer abuses--Congress, and angry passengers, may back off.

It's true that in some quarters there's a debate over whether these commitments are just recirculated versions of things the law and airline policies already require. But set that aside. With a list of very specific promises and a firm enforcement date, vigilant passengers now have a chance to hold airlines accountable, at least for the things they have pledged to deliver.

So let's look at the Service Commitments themselves. The plans are similar in key ways. All pledge to:

* Offer the lowest fare available for which you are eligible when you specify dates and times; and guarantee quoted fares for 24 hours after a reservation is made.

* Offer timely and frequent updates during flight delays and cancellations.

* Make reasonable efforts to retrieve missing bags in 24 hours.

* Process refunds within seven days (for credit card buys; cash and check refunds may be longer).

* Respond to complaints within 60 days (some promise a quicker response).

* Provide essentials, like rest rooms and water, during long delays.

* Reveal, if asked, aircraft configuration, including seat pitch (leg room).

Each airline's plan is slightly different, and most offer some unique tenets. For instance, American promises Special Assistance Coordinators who will phone (self-identified) disabled customers to offer help. US Airways promises a $25 voucher if lost bags aren't delivered in 24 hours. Northwest says its delay announcements will include an apology, the specific reason for the delay, the expected length of the delay and the status of any connections. And TWA pledges to address problems, yes, "to the customer's satisfaction."

To read a copy of the service commitment of a carrier you fly, visit its Web page. You can also write or call the airline to request a printed copy. We've published Web and mailing addresses, plus phone numbers, for major U.S. airlines on Page E9.

So let's say you've read the plan and know what the airline has committed to--and observe a failure to deliver. What do you do?

First, contact the airline's service commitment representative. (Those names are also included in the box on Page E9. United and Delta refused to divulge the name of an individual responsible for service commitment issues.) If you don't hear back in 60 days, that's another violation.

Second, copy your complaint to the Department of Transportation, the federal agency that will monitor airline compliance (and will send undercover agents into airports and planes). You can also send copies to the office of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the members of Congress most engaged with the issue of airline service, and to a watchdog Web site monitoring the situation.

That contact information appears on Page E9, too.

Bargain of the week

Going, Going, Gone

Just in time for procrastinating shoppers, Lufthansa is holding a two-day Internet auction on airline tickets, vacation packages and car rentals. The auction is Wednesday and Thursday at www.lufthansa-usa.com. Among the items up for auction is round-trip air fare between D.C. and Vienna Feb. 2-8 for either one or two passengers. You must register at the site to participate. At Lufthansa's last auction, held in October, winning bids included $730 for two round-trip tickets between Washington and Abu Dhabi, and $480 for two round-trip tickets between Los Angeles and Istanbul.

Help feed CoGo. Send travel news, road reports and juicy tattles to:

cogo@washpost.com. By fax: 202-334-1069. By mail: CoGo, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.