Hurry up and wait

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I received e-mail from a consumer distressed by an experience with a canceled US Airways flight from Philadelphia to West Palm Beach, Fla.

She said after waiting in a long line, she was booked on a Delta flight to Miami with only 15 minutes to spare. She said the counter agent "refused" to check her bags and told her getting from Miami to West Palm "is your problem."

My letter writer missed her plane and was rebooked on another Miami flight, leaving 10 minutes later, with a Cincinnati connection.

I would not expect Airline A to check bags for Airline B, and sometimes flying to an area airport is the quickest way to get home. But what of the 15-minute lead time? More on that later.

The bigger question is what are the carriers' service obligations to passengers on canceled flights? In legal terms, none. However, Air Transport Association members abide by Rule 240, which predates deregulation.

Our aviation editor, Michele McDonald, explains, "This applies to cancellations within a 24-hour window, whereby airlines can 'make every effort' to put passengers on the next available flight offered by any other signatory airline. For cancellations further out, an ATA airline generally will 'make every effort' to put passengers on the next available flight operated by itself.

"The contracts of carriage stipulate the carrier may incur expenses (hotel, etc.) in some circumstances and may do this or that if a passenger misses a connection, or his outbound or return flight is canceled, or weather happens, or air-traffic control dies," and responses can vary widely. The only disciplinarian is "good old market forces."

Those forces helped influence the ATA carriers to issue a "customer service commitment" June 17, pledging basic services to the public. Also, each ATA member will develop a new "customer service plan" to be implemented by year-end.

As to the incident above: US Airways said it knew at least an hour out that the flight would not operate and then began rebooking all passengers on "next available flights," according to policy.

A carrier spokesman said the process broke down because the new flight information did not always get to passengers before they wasted time in long lines. He said US Airways' new "customer service plan" will, among other things, focus on better implementation of existing, sound service policies.

After all, US Airways provided my letter writer with a timely alternative flight, and even the second booking was quick. Customers want more.

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