The Brancatelli File



September 23, 1999 -- The airlines released their "voluntary" customer service plans last week and the nation could barely stifle its collective yawn. It was so little ado about nothing that even I thought about moving on without comment.

But after reading the chest-thumping press releases and the incredibly insulting details of these programs, I realized that that this is nation's airlines at their most cynical. Released under the duress of a somnambulant Congress that may yet rouse itself to pass "passenger rights" legislation, the programs are proof positive that the robber barons who control the nation's major carriers think travelers will believe anything.

Taken as a single piece--and we can, since the programs were cobbled together under the direction of the Air Transport Association, the airline trade group--these alleged customer-service plans are impressive for their aggressive offensiveness. They are a remarkable collection of the unenforceable, the unimaginative, the implausible, the impossibly vague, the illogical, the insensitive and the previously mandated.

At some points, several of the airlines' plans are blatant lies. At other times, they imperiously deign to do what federal law or regulation already directs them to do. Other sections shift the blame from airline management to passengers, employees, the government or the janitor who sweeps the floor. At no time do they even bind an airline to actually execute any of the feeble promises the documents promulgate.

Think I'm overreacting? Then consider that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) called the plans, released on September 15, "nothing but legalistic gobbledegook, which [does] nothing to protect passengers." The General Accounting Office, the investigative agency of Congress, said the programs do little more than "reflect what is in the statutes and regulations." The Congressional Research Service said the plans "lack the enforceability" necessary to hold the airlines accountable for their actions.

Want to read them for yourself? Few carriers had the guts to post their rhetorical straw men on their Web sites. But try Our Commitment at United, Northwest's Customers First, the Delta Customer Service Commitment, Continental's Customer First or US Airways' Customer Commitment.

Read any or all or any part of those statements and you'll realize that these programs are a cartload of platitudes that commit the carriers to nothing. Yet the airlines are so arrogant--and think you are so stupid--that they sent the fatuous spokesman for the ATA out to say, "We are going to do these things."

Well, you know what? The airlines aren't going to do those things. Know how I know they aren't? American Airlines says they aren't. The disavowal is right there in its Customer Service Plan.

To its everlasting credit, American didn't issue a news release to announce its program. Unlike the other carriers, American chose not to rub our noses in it. Always the straightest shooter among the airlines, American was also blunt and clear-eyed when it came to explaining enforcement of these programs.

At the end of its 11-page plan, American says this: "The Customer Service Plan does not create contractual or legal rights." In other words, nothing in American's plan or any of the other carrier's programs gives travelers any protection whatsoever. Want even more? Consider American's very last line: "We are not responsible for any…instances in which we do not meet our service goals."

This, fellow travelers, is the actual and metaphoric bottom line. All these plans, all these words, mean nothing. It is all a cynical farce. Nothing that was said or written last week means a damned thing. You know it. I know it. The airlines know it. And, saddest of all, the Congress that allowed the airlines to police themselves knows it.

In case you've forgotten, this whole charade began back in January, when Northwest Airlines stranded thousands of travelers for up to 12 hours on snowbound runways in Detroit. Enough Congressmen were incensed by Northwest's actions and its management's craven disavowal of responsibility that lawmakers began talking about passenger rights and protection for the nation's 600 million travelers. Yet the airlines, via the ATA, derailed any legal action with a promise of self-improvement.

These phony customer service plans are the result of that absurd promise. These programs, which senators call gobbledegook, Congressional research services call unenforceable and at least one honest airline admits binds the carrier to nothing, are supposed to be in effect by December 15.

Mark that date in your calendar because December 15 won't be a day that will live in travel infamy. In fact, by December 15, no one will even remember what was promised on September 15.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.