Members of a Hamburg family landed in Orlando, Fla., last week to discover their suitcases went to Philadelphia. All day, they had no fresh clothes, personal items or toys.
A Buffalo woman arrived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a day later than expected after her flight there via Washington, D.C., was canceled. Even her last-ditch attempt to fly through Charlotte, N.C., died when too many other desperate fliers scrambled to get stand-by status. She arrived the following morning -- via Dallas.
A former Buffalonian now living on Long Island flew with his wife and infant daughter recently, and they were forced to sit in a hot, crowded plane for more than an hour, awaiting takeoff. They still don't know what the problem was.
"Service isn't very good these days," said the passenger, who asked to remain anonymous. "When there's a problem, I don't think they even tell the truth half the time."
These frustrated air travelers are not alone.
In the first six months of this year, the number of air passenger complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation rose 79 percent over the number filed in a similar period last year. In that period, 6,582 travelers lodged complaints against domestic airlines, and complaints lodged against the 10 largest U.S. airlines increased by about 55 percent over the same period.
Widespread complaints about delays, canceled flights and rude service have prompted some members of Congress and the Clinton administration to push for a "bill of rights" for air passengers. The legislation would hold the airlines more accountable for the way they treat passengers when problems arise.
Next week, the airline industry will unveil its own "customer service commitment," a voluntary action plan aimed at addressing problems that transcend regions.
"I've never seen the level of frustration and hostility among passengers that I'm seeing now," said Jean McDonnell-Covelli, president of the Travel Team, a Buffalo travel agency. "And there seems to be an absolute arrogance on the part of major carriers. It's running rampant in the industry."
Ms. McDonnell-Covelli said she has seen the intensifying dilemma from two vantage points: as a travel agent and as a frequent flier.
"I've been commuting to the West Coast at least twice a month since last November and I've had nothing but incredible problems," she said.
Not all air travelers expressed outrage; at least one-third of the passengers interviewed this week at Buffalo Niagara International Airport had few gripes about airline service. When things have gone awry, some passengers gave high marks to airlines for offering free tickets or even checks.
But the majority of travelers related stories about lost luggage, long delays, last-minute cancellations and insensitive attendants.
Jamie Rickard of Hamburg took her 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old niece to Orlando. When they arrived, they learned that their luggage had been routed to Philadelphia and that it would be a day before they could retrieve the baggage.
"Do you know what it's like to be in Orlando with two young kids and no suitcases?" Ms. Rickard asked.
A late connecting flight also caused some distress in the terminal as she dashed to make her next flight.
"I had to drag the two kids through the airport," Ms. Rickard recalled. "When I arrived at the gate, I had literally two minutes to spare."
Cathy Worthington operates Travel Memories of Williamsville and said she's not surprised to hear that complaints against U.S. airlines have more than doubled since 1997.
She said some carriers are "canceling and delaying flights like crazy."
It happened to her several months ago when an extra five hours was tagged on to her itinerary after a flight was delayed.
"Customer service in the airline industry is going down, there's no doubt about it," said Ms. Worthington. "And they always seem to pass the buck when there are problems. They push them off onto other people, blaming the air traffic controllers or whoever else they can blame."
Critics insist the complaints can be documented with statistics. For example, 29 percent of major U.S. airline flights were late in June, up from 21 percent for the final quarter of 1998.
The number of general customer service complaints lodged against all U.S. airlines ballooned by 55 percent in the first half of the year compared with 1998 figures, while baggage complaints skyrocketed by more than 82 percent.
Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents the airline industry, is working with carriers on an "action plan" for improving customer service. The plan, scheduled for release by Wednesday, will involve numerous voluntary steps aimed at reducing many of the most common complaints.
Skeptics brand the voluntary plan an industry ploy to avoid new legal mandates in the face of congressional efforts designed to create the air passenger "bill of rights."
Richard M. Weintraub, senior director of public relations for US Airways, insisted Wednesday that carriers are sincere about improving service.
"We've seen an increase in the number of passengers who are upset over various levels of service. We share in their feeling that things can be done better and we'll be announcing some fairly comprehensive steps in the near future," Weintraub said.
Industry officials said some of the improvements, including more efficient reservation procedures and upgraded employee training, will not be implemented until mid-December.
Kay Horner, a spokesperson for Delta Air Lines, said she believes the carrier has made significant strides toward improving customer service.
She noted that two years ago, Delta was last among the major U.S. air carriers for on-time flight performance. She said figures released in June indicate that Delta had become the third best, only behind Southwest Airlines and Northwest Airlines. She added that Delta had the fewest number of baggage-related complaints among the major carriers in June.
"We think Delta has made great strides since late 1997, and we're always looking for ways to improve," Ms. Horner said.
However, Delta leads the industry in the rate of involuntary passenger bumpings. In the second quarter, Delta reported 5,519 bumpings -- nearly half the total of 11,908 for all 10 major airlines.
That's why some air travelers said they don't think the industry should be left on its own to correct deficiencies.
"There are some inherent problems with self-regulation," said Terry Shaw, who recalls having to land in Rochester rather than his intended Buffalo destination on a flight in December.
Shaw traveled with his wife and young child at the time, and he said the problem had nothing to do weather. He blamed it on a mix-up at the booking counter.
Federal regulators confirm that problems with reservations, tickets and boarding are the fourth most common complaint (flight problems, customer service and baggage problems are the top three complaint categories.)
Brian Berkman, president of Koch Travel in Kenmore, believes there is growing consumer dissatisfaction with airline service.
"There's definitely such a thing as air rage," he said. "You're dealing with more and more congestion in airports, crowded planes and far more delays. Even the food seems to be getting worse."
Berkman expressed skepticism about the airline industry's effort to craft its own blueprint for bolstering the rights of passengers.
"The airlines just don't want a law passed. They'll say or do anything to avoid having a new law passed," he said.
Ms. McDonnell-Covelli said she thinks the powerful airline industry has "put enough pressure" on Congress to dash any hope that meaningful legislation will be passed.
"I think the bill of rights could be diluted to such an extent that customers would end up seeing very little difference," she said.
An expert who tracks the financial side of the aviation industry said carriers face some potential economic turbulence. James Beyer is editor of the Avmark Newsletter, a publication of Avmark Services Ltd., an aviation financial analysis and appraisal company.
"Airlines are facing a lot of pressure from labor to raise wages," Beyer said. "They're also getting hit with higher fuel costs. If you remember that fuel accounts for about 20 percent of a carrier's fixed costs."
Ms. Worthington warned that some airlines could see profits take a nose dive if they don't take swift steps to upgrade service.
"I'm already seeing people who are choosing their airline more carefully," she said. "Even if they have frequent-flier miles on one carrier, they're more prone to choosing another if that airline has a better on-time track record."