The U.S. government scolded the nation's airlines Monday for coming up short in their voluntary effort to improve customer service and warned that air travelers will face another chaotic summer unless the carriers act quickly to improve performance.
One in four flights was delayed, canceled or diverted last year -- affecting 163 million U.S. passengers -- and consumers' complaints have soared, according to a report by the Department of Transportation's inspector general.
The report comes at a time when the airline industry is being vexed on several fronts, from labor strife to increased competition and threats of regulation. Airlines successfully lobbied Congress over the past two years to stave off legislation for a "passengers' bill of rights," saying they would work to improve service on their own. But the report Monday found their efforts lacking.
The agency also extended blame for the delays, cancellations and lost luggage that plagued U.S. travel last summer to airports and the Federal Aviation Administration, because they haven't kept up with surging passenger growth.
The agency's report card adds to the turbulence in the airline industry, which reached a peak last summer when more than 25,000 flights were canceled or delayed because of bad weather, employees' work slowdowns and other factors. New sources of the upheaval include:
--Spreading discontent among both leisure travelers and business fliers who know too well what the Transportation Department found, and who are fed up with the delays, cancellations and poor service.
--Several lawmakers who are renewing plans to introduce bills to secure passengers' rights.
--Widespread labor unrest that could lead to strikes against four of the biggest U.S. airlines -- American, Delta, Northwest and United -- this spring.
--High fuel prices that have raised airlines' costs and made it tougher for the airlines to reach more lucrative pacts that will satisfy their unions.
--The slowing of the U.S. economy, which could reduce consumers' demand for air travel, affecting the carriers' bottom line.
--Merger plans among four of the nation's eight major airlines, and the prospect of more, which many fear would saddle travelers with even worse service and higher fares.
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