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It used to be an appealing offer - the airline invitation to "fly the friendly skies."

Oh, how times change. Today, a phrase like "hostile heavens" might more appropriately describe what awaits air travelers. At least, that's how many passengers view it, and conditions do not seem to be improving.

Data just released by the U.S. Department of Transportation reveals that complaints about air travel are up -- way up. During the first six months of this year, the DOT received 5,005 complaints from displeased passengers. That was twice the number received during the first half of 1998. In June alone, 29 percent of major U.S. airline flights were late.

Both frequent and infrequent fliers gripe loudly about canceled and delayed flights, missed connections, lost luggage, overbooking, poor customer service, rude airline personnel and lack of information about developing situations.

The complaints became so loud and numerous earlier this year, after a blizzard stranded thousands of Northwest Airlines passengers on planes for up to 10 hours at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, that Congress and President Clinton were leaning toward a "bill of rights" for air passengers. It would hold airlines accountable for the way they treat passengers when problems arise.

That idea has stalled while the airline industry developed a self-policing policy, which it unveiled Wednesday. United Airlines has plans to use mobile computers that can be wheeled to gates having flight problems. US Airways says it will create a 12-member consumer advisory board that will meet regularly with senior managers to discuss how to improve customer service.

The industry plan is far from audacious. And it does little to remove the skepticism that self-policing plans generate. We can only hope that these steps toward improved customer service provide significant relief for passengers who are seriously inconvenienced or mishandled through no fault of their own.

Otherwise, Congress may have to step in and provide air traveler with a "bill of rights" that has some teeth in it.

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