Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Search for Fixes on Flight Delays ; as Passengers Act, Airlines and Feds Try Unity

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Search for Fixes on Flight Delays ; as Passengers Act, Airlines and Feds Try Unity

Article excerpt

Would $3,000 ease your pain of a lost vacation day caused by a flight delay? How about $2,500 for the loss of a "refreshing, memorable vacation"? Or even $240 for "waiting time"?

Those are some of the awards that airlines have dished out to disgruntled passengers who have gone so far as to take them to small- claims court, where filing fees are about $10 and no lawyers are needed.

"Small-claims courts are usually receptive to plaintiffs' claims," says Thomas Dickerson, a Westchester County, N.Y., court judge and author of "Travel Law." (Law Journals Seminar Press).

Holding airlines accountable for delayed or cancelled flights is "very practical. I encourage consumers to do it. It's one of the things we pay taxes for," he says.

Small-claims courts typically allow plaintiffs to seek awards of up to $5,000, but the maximum amount varies from state to state. The number of airline-delay-related cases and total damages awarded in the United States is unknown.

Passengers should not necessarily believe airlines' claims that they are not responsible for flight delays, says Mr. Dickerson, who has ruled on more than 3,000 small-claims cases.

Flight schedules are set in ink and widely distributed, of course. And airplane-grounding storm systems can boil up in just hours. But, as with any industry, personnel laxity and mistakes can also come into play.

"If the delay is something the airline truly cannot predict or foresee, they are not responsible," he allows.

But he also maintains that airlines sometimes fail to make arrangements to minimize problems when they could.

The wait worsens

Last year, flight delays increased 20 percent over the previous year. And the situation has yet to improve this year. Department of Transportation figures show 244 flight delays in March. That's down from 260 delays in February, but nearly double the number recorded in March 1999.

Finger-pointing abounds as to who or what is most to blame for the air-travel troubles.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) points to the sky, claiming 75 percent of air-traffic delays are weather-related.

The airlines have recently pointed at what they consider to be government's too-heavy hand.

"There has been an inability between the airline industry and the FAA to talk to each other in an adult fashion," says Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co- author of the Airline Quality Rating report.

A plan for promptness

In March, the FAA instituted reforms aimed to improve communications between the agency and the airlines.

The FAA and airlines use the same high-tech weather forecasts to determine how to deal with traffic during storms.

And "their definitions are now roughly the same," says Mr. Headley. "For example, up until a month or two ago, the airlines would file [flight] schedules with the FAA every two weeks. …

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