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Upgrading airports and traffic systems is the real need, airline executives say

If the federal government really wants to improve on-time performance and customer service in the airline industry, it should spend money to upgrade the nation's airports and air-traffic control systems, airline executives said Wednesday.

Outmoded airport designs and aging traffic-control technology are big contributors to flights delays and, consequently, passenger dissatisfaction, industry officials said during a public forum in the State Office Building auditorium.But Congress has proposed a package of bills known collectively as the "passenger bill of rights." The legislation would, among other things, require airlines to compensate passengers kept waiting on a runway for more than two hours, explain all delays and cancellations and give refunds for flights canceled due to economic reasons.

Airline officials said Wednesday they don't cancel flights for economic reasons and said the airlines, not government, should be in charge of improving customer service.

Bruce Chambers, general manager for United Airlines' Salt Lake operation, said passengers will speak with their feet -- by walking over to another airline -- if they do not get the service they desire.

"An approach that makes facilities more efficient is the way to go," said Chambers, who noted that House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, R-Pa., is sponsoring a bill to release federal funds for that purpose.

About 80 percent of all flight delays are because of weather conditions, said Robert Shaw, district sales manager for Trans World Airlines.

The passenger bill of rights was inspired in part by the experiences of TWA passengers on a flight in January. The flight from Tampa, Fla., was stuck on a Detroit Metropolitan Airport tarmac for seven hours during a snowstorm.

Lisa Piccione, general manager of government affairs for Delta Air Lines, said the nation's air facilities could be "gridlocked" shortly after the turn of the century if government does not initiate major improvements to airports and air-traffic control systems. The number of air passengers is expected to increase 43 percent, to 920 million, by 2010, she said.

Piccione said Delta is implementing a program to give passengers more information about their flights and the airline's customer-service practices.

Wednesday's gathering was sponsored by the Utah Air Travel Commission, a volunteer organization with board members representing the Utah Department of Transportation, Salt Lake City and the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce.

The forum was intended as an informational meeting for the public. But only about 40 people attended and the majority were airline employees, media or others with a business interest in the proposed passenger bill of rights.

Nearly a dozen speakers covered everything from alliances between major airlines to issues surrounding frequent-flier programs.

Among the highlights:

Bill Gibbs, Delta's Salt Lake director, said Salt Lake City International Airport has improved its on-time performance rating from one of the worst in the industry three years ago to one of the best.

Alan Bender, a transportation economist from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said the passenger airline industry needs improvement but is "far better" than it was 20 years ago. He said the solution to improved customer service is to "open up the marketplace."

Chambers said the airline industry receives relatively few complaints from customers -- about 8,000 a year from 626 million passengers. Lowell Miller, marketing director for Frontier Airlines, said an alliance between Delta and United has the potential of knocking his carrier out of the Denver market, resulting in higher fares -- costing passengers $750 million a year -- into and out of Denver International Airport.

But, Miller said, domestic marketing alliances also can serve to reduce fares and such agreements should be supported for that reason.

Tara Hill, area marketing manager for Southwest airlines, said the passenger bill of rights would not impact Southwest. She said Southwest has one of the lowest complaint rates of any carrier.