Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, under fire from Congress and the public because of shoddy airline service, ordered major airlines yesterday to provide statistics about flight delays and lost luggage so consumers can choose the most reliable service.
House aviation subcommittee Chairman Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.) criticized the new regulations, designed to ease the traveling public's two major gripes about airline service, as "too little, too late," and several lawmakers said the action would not deter efforts to pass stricter airline consumer-protection legislation.
Consumer bills were passed by aviation committees in the Senate and House before the current recess.
Beginning Oct. 15, the new rules require airlines to provide monthly reports on each flight's on-time performance and lost-baggage records. To help travelers avoid booking flights that are consistently late, the performance records will be encoded in the computer reservation system used by most travel agents.
"The American people have a right to truth in airline scheduling and quality airline service," Dole said at a news conference. She said the flights would be keyed into the reservation system with numbers indicating their on-time histories.
"For example, the number 8 will reflect that flight arrived on time between 80 and 89.9 percent of the time," she said. "The number 5 will indicate that the flight arrived on time between 50 and 59.9 percent of the time."
The rules apply to the 14 largest carriers with nonstop service to the country's 27 largest airports and cover about 63 percent of domestic airline service. Dole added that the rules will have an indirect effect on "virtually all flights in the U.S."
Only flights delayed for mechanical reasons will be exempt from the reporting, Dole said. The rules define a late flight as one leaving or arriving at a gate more than 15 minutes after the scheduled time.
She termed the rules a "market-incentive approach."
"This will encourage airlines to stop overscheduling," she said.
The announcement follows agreement between the department and six major carriers to improve on-time performance for flights operating at airports in Chicago, Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta.
William F. Bolger, president of the Air Transport Association, noted that the new rule is similar to one recommended by the industry almost two months ago, but criticized the department for being "preoccupied with reporting on problems rather than solving problems."
Industry officials and airline executives said problems in the air traffic system will not be solved until more air traffic controllers are hired and their equipment is modernized, complicated traffic patterns are reorganized and more runways and airports are built.
House Public Works and Transportation Committee Chairman James J. Howard (D-N.J.) said the House will continue to push for passage of an airline consumer-protection bill.
The House version, which is more far-reaching than the Senate bill, requires airlines to give free tickets if lost bags are not found by certain deadlines and penalizes airlines as much as $10,000 for economic-related flight cancellations within 72 hours of departure time.
"Once again, under the threat of meaningful legislation, Transportation Secretary Dole has admitted that there is a problem and has proposed a halfhearted solution," Mineta said.
The major airports covered by the rules are Washington National, Atlanta Hartsfield, Boston Logan, Charlotte, Chicago O'Hare, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver Stapleton, Detroit Metropolitan, Houston Intercontinental, Los Angeles International, Las Vegas, Memphis, Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Orlando, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, San Francisco, St. Louis Lambert, Seattle-Tacoma, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Tampa and the three serving metropolitan New York.