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 Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin THE SERVICE SYNDROME

BY MARTIN B. DEUTSCH

April 1, 1988 -- The customer is always right. Really?

Right or wrong, true or false, there exists a persistent question in the public sector and in travel circles about the commitment of the airlines, particularly the domestic U.S. variety, to this truism or cliché.

In the latest analysis of the top ten issues facing the travel industry ("1987 Revisited: 1988 Previewed"), the editors of Travel Management Daily pinpoint "airline service" as the most nagging headache that continues to face and faze this country’s shrinking family of air carriers. The summary cites "increasing pressure from the public, the press, and government to improve the quality of airline service as delays mounted, near-misses proliferated and consumer complaints skyrocketed."

Several months ago in this page I wrote about service in several industries in general and at airlines specifically. I felt then, as I feel now, that the airlines’ performance was improving. This has been borne out by measurable declines since last fall in the Department of Transportation’s monthly report on consumer complaints. Nonetheless, the reality and/or perception hangs in there: the airlines are not doing as much or as well as they should be.

The problems were created by a variety of causes, says Travel Management, such as "the troubles inherent in combining the operations of merged carriers; the tendency of airlines to overschedule departures at peak hours; and to underestimate elapsed flight time in CRS schedule displays; a general increase in capacity; and primarily–according to the airline industry–the federal government’s reluctance to spend the money required for air traffic control improvements, additional controllers, and airport expansion projects."

By the middle of last year, the news media were "carrying almost daily stories about near-collisions, pilot errors, passenger revolts, crowded skies, and canceled or delayed departures." The government responded to this rising media chorus with a movement to reregulate the airline industry. "The movement reached such a fever pitch that it almost—but not quite—resulted in a Department of Transportation rejection of the last major merger, that of USAir and Piedmont.

"But it did lead to new DOT rules requiring carriers to publicly report their on-time and baggage mishandling performance to legislative efforts still under way in Congress that appear certain to result in new laws (this year) regulating certain passenger-related aspects of the airline business, and efforts by state attorneys general to crack down on allegedly misleading advertising practices by carriers." In summarizing this dominant survey issue, the newsletter’s managing editor, Jim Glab, wrote: "By the closing months of 1987, airline delays and consumer complaints were both showing a downward trend, airlines had agreed to stop using elapsed time as a factor in CRS schedule displays, the Federal Aviation Administration has installed improved traffic control radar in a number of sites, more controllers were being hired, and other steps were under way to improve the situation. That improvement should continue in the short term, but over the long haul, the industry and government must resolve some basic questions, such as how to allocate slots at a growing number of airports as industry capacity continues to increase every year, while only one major new airport is in the works in the U.S."

Below are highlights of several other issues raised in Travel Management’s study:

Airline "globalization": Reflecting concern about the market power and international reach of the U.S. megacarriers, the foreign airlines have begun to consolidate their own clout. British Airways took over British Caledonian, beating out a determined bid by SAS, although the latter remains on the hunt for other partners. British Air also formed a close marketing alliance with United, and SAS has enhanced its ties with Thai Airways International.

The shrinking dollar. While outbound travel from the U.S. remained robust last year, with the possible exception of leisure travel to Japan, watch out for 1988. The dollar’s seemingly endless slide, 15-30 percent last year after a 25 percent decline in 1986, will result in ever more costly trips this year. While it could be a rough year for outbound travel, especially for discretionary trips, travel should be up on domestic mainland routes—to Hawaii, Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean. (Maybe yes, maybe no.)

Among the other issues covered by the Travel Management survey were "Travel Scams/Discounting," "Shot-at-Home," and "Airline Unions." If you’d like complimentary copies of the full report, contact Travel Management, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, N.Y. 10106.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.