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Airline profits up, customer service down

Since the turn of the millennium, major U.S. airlines have been in and out of bankruptcy, and travelers have had to downgrade their expectations. Because of the industry's financial woes, there's been an implicit understanding that customers need to cut their carriers some slack and get used to less. Now, with the news that airlines are back in the black, it seems logical to assume we'd see a return to the "friendly skies" of yesteryear.

But we know what happens when we assume. And so we see this eye-catching but oh-so-painful USA Today headline: Airlines score lower than IRS in customer satisfaction. That's right, despite the fact that the seven largest carriers "reported a combined operating profit of $393 million in the fourth quarter for the group's third consecutive quarterly profit margin," the industry's customer service reputation is still in freefall.

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Anyone who has spent time in security lines, squeezed into cramped coach seats, or waited for lost luggage knows why the airlines have an image problem. The question is, will that problem be addressed now that there's extra cash floating around? United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski says, "We are committed to doing a better job at giving customers the service they expect." Given that customers now expect so little, let's hope the airlines can do better than that.

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