Sometimes perspective is hard to come by, especially when debates turn political. On Capitol Hill these days, the accepted wisdom seems to be that U.S. airline service is worse than itÆs ever been. Airlines, in turn, assert traveler complaints to the Transportation Department about service are a pittance compared to the number of people flying.

By sheer numbers, the airlines are closer to the truth, a Travel Weekly analysis shows. Last year, the DOT received 1.2 complaints per 100,000 enplanements (roughly equal to number of passengers). ThatÆs the third-highest ratio in this decade. But the highest was back in 1990 (1.5), and, compared with the late 1980s, airline service today looks stellar.

The DOT received about 41,000 complaints in 1987 and 21,500 in 1988. In 1998, with far more passengers, the DOT received about 8,000 -- a number Continental chief executive Gordon Bethune likes to emphasize.

What Bethune neglects to mention, however, is that the numbers do not include complaints filed with the airlines themselves, which, aside from mishandled baggage, are not reported to the DOT.

Now the Clinton administration is proposing a requirement that airlines give the DOT their complaint totals in 15 categories, for public release. There is some precedent for this approach. In 1987, the DOT began publishing on-time and mishandled-baggage statistics. DOT officials believe that put pressure on airlines to improve and contributed to the subsequent decline in complaints.

The results might not be the same this time, and precautions are needed to ensure airlines do not fudge their numbers, but we still like the idea of giving travelers more information. We think the airlines should support it, too. After all, it would help put the issue into perspective.

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