02/25/2013 08:54 am ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

5 Ways Airlines Can Improve Customer Service Now

Let's face it, airlines aren't exactly known for their outstanding customer service. They haven't been for years. And you don't have to be Alison Jaerianna to know that.

It helps, though. After scoring a space-available upgrade to business class on a Delta Air Lines flight from Pittsburgh to New York, Jaerianna's luck ran out. The airline canceled her flight at the last minute and rebooked her on another one.

When she boarded the aircraft, she found herself in an uncomfortable middle seat. In the last row.

Delta promised to send her a $50 voucher as an apology.

"That was a year ago," she says.

Sadly, experiences like hers are routine in this business. It goes with the territory when you're flying in the 21st century. And while I do hear some positive stories about airline service from time to time, it's the complaints that lead to the airline industry's dismal rating.

The authoritative American Customer Service Index gives the U.S. airline industry a cumulative score of 67 out of 100, which is slightly better than the year before but still hardly a ringing endorsement, either. (If you must know, Delta's score was a 65.)

The outlook isn't much better. American Airlines and US Airways are about to merge, and no one seriously believes customer service will improve -- at least not in the short term.

But what can airlines, which are currently enjoying record profits, do right now to improve their service? Here are five steps that would cost virtually nothing:

1. Implement minimum seat width and legroom standards. Before deregulation, when even the seats in the back of the plane had 36 inches of legroom, no one had to ask for a civil amount of space. But in a time when some seats are so tightly packed in that the passenger in front of you can't lean back without slamming into your knees, we have a real problem. I just spent the better part of a day on a United Airlines Boeing 737, where the seat pitch in economy class was a snug 31 inches. Even dogs have it better when they fly. Maybe we should agree to a minimum seat pitch of 34 inches, which is a little less than you get in premium economy class and slightly more than in today's economy class.

2. Allow us to bundle our own airfare before we book. Right now, several forward-looking airlines are "rebundling" fares to include the cost of a checked bag or priority boarding, like McDonald's value meals. This isn't new; they've been working on the technology for years. But only they can do the bundling. We can't even pull up a fare that includes a bag, a sandwich and a Wi-Fi connection and find out what all that will cost before we click on the "buy" button. Often, we must wait until after we buy or until we're at the airport. This DIY bundling would give us the kind of fare transparency that would allow us to know exactly how much our ticket will cost.

3. Add customer commitments to the airline contract. The Transportation Department requires that airlines follow their contract of carriage, which is the legal agreement between you and the airline, but they don't tell them what to put in it. Airlines should voluntarily include their customer commitments in the contract, which cover how passengers will be treated if there's a delay or a service interruption.

4. Adopt a "plain English" and standard contract of carriage. One more change needs to be made: The contracts must get rid of cryptic legal terms like "Force Majeure," and use more understandable words like "an event beyond our control." What's more, air carriers ought to agree on standard language in every contract that addresses basic issues like lost luggage, mechanical delays and rebooking.

5. Follow the law. Many airlines continue to flout important consumer rules. One law that's consistently disregarded is EU 261, which offers cash compensation for passengers delayed on flights to and from Europe. The loophole? A clever interpretation of the rule that reassigns the blame for a delay, allowing the carrier to withhold compensation from its customers. It's hardly the only rule that's being disregarded. Airlines also routinely ignore rules about notifying customers of flight delays, keeping them on the plane during a ground delay, displaying an airfare that includes all mandatory taxes and fees, and many others. Following the laws would significantly improve service.

Airlines could make their products measurably better by giving us a few extra inches of legroom, telling us exactly how much our ticket will cost, making their contracts more consumer-friendly and easier to understand, and following the rules instead of fighting them.

Best of all, the cost of these changes would be negligible, and easily offset by the goodwill and loyalty generated by the customers who would benefit from them.

Speaking of goodwill, Jaerianna's eventually received her $50 voucher after I contacted Delta on her behalf. And just to be clear, she wasn't entitled to anything for the downgrade, but a promise is a promise.

"The moral of the story?" she says. "Don't expect anything."

By the way, after you've left a comment here, let's continue the discussion on my consumer advocacy site or on Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also have a free newsletter. Here"s the signup form.

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