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Airline passengers face the summertime blues

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If it's summer, no doubt someone is waiting out a flight delay.

Over the past few years, as much as a time for sharing such seasonal experiences as baseball and barbecues, summer has become a time for groaning along with others as the word "canceled" appears next to your flight number on an airport monitor.

Whether vacationing or on business, this time of year you run a constant risk that thunderstorms in Dallas or air traffic control issues on the East Coast will play havoc with your travel plans.

I saw an interesting piece about the current state of commercial air travel recently on the Knowledge@Wharton site of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business (knowledge. wharton.upenn.edu). Its perspective likely won't surprise anyone who travels regularly.

According to the article, not only is the air travel experience these days frequently bad to miserable, but, as bad experiences have become the norm, airlines have largely stopped caring about customer service.

The piece, "Feel Free to Move About the Airport: Turbulence Continues to Roil the Airline Industry," quoted Wharton Professor Serguei Netessine reflecting on the new reality of airline customer service: "Previously airlines worried about dissatisfied customers. Now, I don't think they worry about it because the customer service at all airlines is so horrible."

Interesting approach to business: Everybody's service stinks so don't sweat the customer service.

For this year's first six months, major airlines' on-time arrival rate was just over 72.6%, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the lowest for the same period in seven years. In June, the on-time arrival rate was just 68.1%.

Meanwhile, DOT reported that complaints about airline service were up 47.2% in the first half of 2007 vs. the same period last year.

Not surprisingly, like other experts, the Knowledge@Wharton article cites airlines' reduced capacity as a factor behind much of the decline in service.

In an effort to operate profitably, airlines have cut capacity, leading to increased demand for available seats. Coupled with their tendency to overbook flights in an effort to avoid flying with empty seats, and the American airline industry's reliance on a hub-and-spoke model, problems tend to escalate quickly when bad weather or other factors force delays or cancellations.

While I've had my share of air travel nightmares in the past, I've been generally pretty lucky on my travels so far this summer. Of course by saying so, I've likely cursed my next trip. And it's probably worth noting that my home airport is Chicago's O'Hare International, a notorious flight delay culprit, according to the federal statistics. So my perspective on air travel misery might unconsciously reflect lowered expectations.

I was talking with a neighbor the other night, though, who related a litany of delays and cancellations she's experienced on her travels this summer. For her, the topper was getting stuck overnight in New York recently due to flight cancellations. Inconvenient, of course, and not getting home that evening to her husband and children was certainly disappointing.

Making things worse, though, was that she was on what was supposed to be a day trip--fly to New York in the morning, fly home to Chicago that night--so, naturally enough, she hadn't packed for an overnight stay.

My neighbor vows she won't fly again in the summer, but whether the law firm that employs her helps her uphold her vow remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, many experts say the situation is only likely to worsen in the months ahead. Congress can debate "Airline Passenger Bill of Rights" proposals, but perhaps the best approach we travelers can take is to try to manage the risks inherent in our travel plans. Assume that what can go wrong will and, whenever possible, plan accordingly.