Airlines ignore web whines

It is the season of discontent for air travelers. Fares are soaring this summer, planes are flying at capacity and airport terminals are crowded, hot and uncomfortable.

Passengers are furious. They’re calling their representatives and demanding new laws to keep them from being treated like cattle. They’re writing the Department of Transportation with their complaints. They’re even e-mailing me to vent about their last flight.

In response, Web sites are appearing to field travelers’ gripes. Old online veterans such as Untied.com, the ever-popular United Airlines-bashing site, are being joined by a host of newcomers ranging from the slick PassengerRights.com to the homegrown NorthworstAir.org.

The sites imply that participants who post their grievances will get quick results – either because of a special arrangement the site has with an airline or because the airlines will be shamed into action. But the statistics, such as they are, don’t support those claims. In fact, the new sites serve mainly as a sounding board for disgruntled passengers and airline employees.

NorthworstAir.org, founded by Grand Blanc, Mich., inventor and entrepreneur Ronald Riley, wastes no opportunity to pummel Northwest Airlines. “The threshold of pain has to get to a certain point before Northwest will do something about my site,” says Riley. “Eventually, I’ll punish them enough so that they’ll have to react.”

Riley, who started the page this spring when Northwest refused to reimburse him for a damaged laptop computer, says his efforts have already led to the firing of at least one airline employee (his claims were impossible to confirm). He doesn’t know of any other disgruntled passengers who have gotten results through his Web site, but thinks it’s only a matter of time until the airline will be cornered into resolving some of the complaints.

So will they? Unlikely, says Northwest spokesman Jon Austin. “Sites like NorthworstAir.org aren’t effective at all in resolving consumer complaints,” Austin says.

“We don’t monitor those sites. We don’t react to information posted on those sites. If someone has a legitimate gripe with us, the best thing to do is to come to us directly.”

A look at the best-established of the consumer airline sites, Untied.com, suggests that he’s right. Of 483 e-mailed complaints logged during a recent three-month period, United Airlines answered only three. Jeremy Cooperstock, an electrical and computer engineering professor at McGill University who started the site after an unpleasant flight on the Chicago airline, admits, “United isn’t very good about responding.”

Brian Swain, a Lynnwood, Wash., importer who launched his AirlinesSuck.com this spring, says he’s helped one user solve a problem, but like Riley, he doesn’t expect it to be his last.

“What we’re really looking to do is create a place where passengers can unite and have their complaints heard and resolved,” he says. “The pilots have a union, the airlines have a union, but the passengers don’t have a union. They don’t speak with one voice.”

Swain, who posted the page after a string of bad flights, intends to change the status quo by recruiting subscribers and lobbying for improvements in air travel. One of the best-orchestrated of the lot, PassengerRights.com, is equally long on promises and short on results. Unlike the other consumer sites on the Internet, PassengerRights.com isn’t the product of one passenger’s disaffection. Rather, it is connected to Global Travel International, a Maitland, Fla., operator of a home-based travel agency network.

Asked how many consumer complaints the site had resolved since its launch earlier this year, spokeswoman Missy Ward could not furnish any specific numbers.

“I can only say right now that out of all the people that have contacted us, which is about 1,000, the majority of people have gotten responses,” Ward says. “We’re getting notes from people telling us that they’ve received monetary settlements. And I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails to say thank you for our help.”

“Interactive Travel Report” editor David Kirby believes the new consumer sites will continue to struggle because the Internet is viewed differently by airlines.

An e-mailed complaint isn’t taken as seriously as a fax or letter, he points out.

“I think there’s still too much of a temptation when you’re on the Web and you have this mailto link to just blather on and spew out complaints,” he observes. “If I was going to complain, I would still try to compose a nice intelligent, reasoned, detailed complaint letter and try to go through the regular mail channels.”

I wish Kirby were wrong, but I’m afraid he isn’t. Firing off an electronic tirade to an airline may feel good, but for now, you’re not likely to get much more than a form response followed by silence in reply.

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