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August 2003
Flying the Unfriendly Skies—Part One

   Due to substandard airline service, I recently have found it very frustrating to fly, even though I am only traveling around the Midwest.

    During my last 11 or so flights on Northwest Airlines, I have either experienced a significant delay, flight cancellation, or lost luggage. My experience with lost luggage was telling. First, I had great difficulty reaching a live Northwest Airlines representative at either the headquarters in Minneapolis or airport in Lansing, Michigan. Once I got through the recorded telephone maze, the “helpful” Northwest customer representative told me I should know better as a frequent flyer than to check luggage. She said I should bring the luggage with me as I board the plane and ignore airline announcements that larger luggage should be checked. I was also advised by two Northwest representatives that my delays or cancellations might be due to “job actions” by disgruntled airline employees in selected cities, and there is little or nothing Northwest can do about this “inconvenience.”

    I don’t appear to be alone in experiencing flight delays. The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT)—the federal agency responsible for investigating consumer complaints—publishes a monthly report of airline timeliness. For the year ending April 2003, United was the top-rated airline for ontime performance with 85.1 percent of its flights arriving on time. United was followed by American (84.3 percent), Southwest (83.3 percent), US Airways (83.3 percent), Continental (82.7 percent), Northwest (82.3 percent), and Delta (81.9 percent). The data demonstrate airlines generally arrived late about 15–20 percent of the time during the past year.

    Many airlines now require passengers to arrive at the gate at least 20 minutes prior to scheduled departure. This is undoubtedly an airline response to the USDOT statistics. Northwest is boarding passengers 30 minutes before scheduled take-off, which sometimes leads to an early departure. However, I have also sat on the aircraft for considerable time when the plane was late in departing.

    Why not switch to another airline? Well, flight availability from regional airports such as Madison is a significant problem since the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War. Responding to decreased consumer demand, airlines are simply scheduling fewer flights.

    I want to hear your experiences with airlines during the past year. Are you satisfied with your airline or was your flight a nightmare? Please write to me at the address on the magazine’s inside cover and I will include some of the comments, if possible, in next month’s continuing story on airlines. I will also review more USDOT airline complaint statistics and let you know the best way to complain about substandard airline service.

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