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Airlines in for a Bumpy Night on 'Dateline'

Tonight, you can work up a righteous case of air rage without ever leaving your sofa.

If that doesn't sound all that appealing, it's because 'Dateline' NBC's slash-and-burn report on the airlines is all that appalling.

It's no huge secret that, as one observer puts it, "the war between the people who operate America's airlines and the people who pay to fly on them" is getting uglier by the week. "What used to be a luxurious way to travel has become mass transit," says one passenger.

'Dateline' licensed a complex computer program called Flight Explorer that's owned by a private company, Dimensions International, and is used by most major airlines. It shows exactly where every U.S. commercial flight is at any moment. Then 'Dateline' took hidden cameras into major U.S. airports, including Atlanta's Hartsfield International, and asked ticket agents whether a flight was on time. Almost always the agents said it was, while the Flight Explorer showed that it was seriously delayed.

'Dateline' points out that the agents usually don't have the correct information. "In order to lie, you have to have the right information in order to give the wrong information," to keep agents uninformed and push back a flight departure time incrementally by 15 minutes, then 20, then another 15, rather than state upfront that a flight is running two hours late. That way, passengers don't book another flight.

'Dateline' says the airlines (Delta, United, Continental, US Airways and AirTran are mentioned) refused to comment on the report, steering the show to their industry group, the Air Transport Association, which also refused to comment.

"We'll reserve comment until we have viewed the show," Delta spokesman Russ Williams said Monday.

Although 75 percent of U.S. flights arrive on time, according to "Dateline," the show tracked some specific high-volume flights, such as New York-La Guardia to Tampa on US Airways, which was late 27 out of 31 days and canceled on two of the remaining days.

One airline fares very well: Midwest Express. 'Dateline' flew a Midwest Express and a Delta flight from Atlanta to Milwaukee for the same coach price. Using hidden cameras, it compared overhead bin space, the quality of meals and the attentiveness of flight attendants. Midwest Express creamed Delta, according to 'Dateline'.

Parts of the show will hardly make you slap your forehead with disbelief, such as the horror stories of lost luggage. But taken as a whole, tonight's 'Dateline' is a bad bout of turbulence for the airline industry.

03/13/01 10:00 pm EST
"Dateline" NBC
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