he Transportation Department's inspector general has delivered his final report on airline compliance with the customer service commitments they made in 1999.

Shortcomings and successes outlined by the IG were presented during a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee.

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When Inspector General Kenneth Mead was asked by committee chairman John McCain to translate the final product into a report card, Mead gave the airlines mostly As and Bs.

Still, there's work to be done -- some of it within the DOT, whose consumer affairs and enforcement units are understaffed. And the DOT regulation setting the maximum denied-boarding compensation at $400 hasn't been updated in 23 years.

All in all, the industry is doing better today than when this debate started, and there's hope that it will continue to improve if government and consumer watchdogs keep the airlines' feet to the fire.

And if we can get from here to there without a federal law to micromanage airline gate agents, so much the better.

The unthinkable

And the airlines, having demonstrated some progress in dealing with consumers, can now turn their attention to another constituency -- their employees.

Northwest is at an impasse with its mechanics, who are in a government-mandated 30-day cooling-off period. Delta's pilots have voted to authorize a strike if current negotiations fall through. United's mechanics and American's flight attendants are next in line.

There is a statistical possibility that all four could walk out at the same time. If that happens, we're going to give everybody an F.

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