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US Airlines Pledge Service Plan Review

Sat Feb 24, 2007 7:51 am

Major US airlines pledged on Thursday to review and update their customer service plans as necessary and called for a government review of airline and airport preparations for handling weather-related problems.

The steps outlined by airline chief executives through their trade group were intended to head off potential congressional action against carriers over the service meltdown by JetBlue Airways during last week's ice storm in New York.

Bipartisan legislation proposed in the Senate would force airlines to take specific action to get passengers off planes during long delays, a proposal that carriers fear would tangle operations and impose high costs.

Airline chief executives met on Thursday at the offices of their lobbying group, the Air Transport Association, to address customer service concerns raised by the cascading series of events that swamped JetBlue at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport.

JetBlue stranded hundreds of passengers on grounded aircraft on February 14 and canceled more than 1,000 flights as it struggled over succeeding days to address problems with crew scheduling and reservations, and other difficulties.

Airlines are worried about congressional and consumer reaction to the JetBlue debacle, especially after a recent government report that measured flight delays and revealed more than 4 million mishandled bags last year.

Airlines in 1999 averted congressional action over similar incidents by developing a "Customers First" service commitment.

The big carriers said they would review their customer service plans, and update them to assure "the safety, security and comfort of customers."

Airlines also want the Federal Aviation Administration to change rules so they can return to departure gates during delays and not lose their spot in line for takeoff, and for the Transportation Department to sign off on plans for weather emergencies that include providing adequate food and water to passengers during delays.

"We believe these steps offer the best course of action. A rigid, national regulation would be counterproductive and could easily result in greater passenger inconvenience," said James May, the chief executive of the airline trade group.

On Thursday JetBlue's chief executive, David Neeleman, called the ice storm a "really strange deal" that exposed weaknesses in its operations. But he said passengers do not appear to be punishing the company by booking with other airlines.

"We've learned so much through this and now we have a plan to recover the airline," Neeleman said.

JetBlue has updated its customer service plan to reward customers affected by the storm and any future delays. The incident, the airline said, would cost it USD$30 million and result in a wider-than-expected loss for the first quarter. About half the hit will come from free travel vouchers for those affected by the storm, Neeleman said.

Neeleman also said JetBlue will be quicker to cancel flights next time and is also launching an employee training initiative for 900 workers that will require those not based at JFK to work at the airport three hours a month handling reservations and check-in.

(Reuters)

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