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Diane E. Brown,
Arizona PIRG Education Fund

Consumer Group Releases New Report Analyzing Five Years of Air Passenger Complaints

For Immediate Release

According to a report released today by the Arizona PIRG Education Fund, Spirit generates the most complaints among major airlines for its size and generates an increasing number of complaints each year. Other most-complained about firms include Frontier Airlines, United Airlines, and American Airlines.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport was a hub for two major airlines during the time frame that the report covers: US Airways and Southwest Airlines. Although US Airways has been one of the most complained-about airlines for several years, recent improvement saw the airline drop out of the worst five for the first time in 2013. Southwest Airlines is consistently the least complained-about major airline.

The report, The Unfriendly Skies: Five Years of Airline Passenger Complaints to the DOT, analyzes complaints to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division about major U.S. airlines from 2009-2013. The report found that most complaints are about delayed or canceled flights, which were the top complaint category each year and have trended upward overall.

“Too often when airlines cut corners, passengers are put in a holding pattern,” said Diane E. Brown, Executive Director of the Arizona PIRG Education Fund. “Airlines and policymakers should not allow substandard service; neither should consumers.”

The report examines complaints over a five year period during which the industry saw consolidation and increased crowding of seats, gates, runways and airways. The congestion also led to complaints about excessive tarmac delays and lost or delayed baggage. At the same time, while airlines raised fares, they also raised customer ire by adding new additional fees for checked bags, seat selection, and other services that used to be included in the basic fare. Complaints about tarmac delays and lost baggage directly led to new rules from the Department of Transportation and an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights from Congress, but crowded skies keep delays common while complaints have continued to grow.

Some of the report’s findings include:

·         The airline that generated the most complaints per 100,000 passengers was Spirit Airlines, generating approximately three times more complaints per passenger than any other airline. Frontier Airlines, United Airlines, and American Airlines were also at the top of the rankings, with complaints per 100,000 passengers steadily increasing over the past few years.

·         The airlines that generated the fewest complaints per 100,000 passengers were Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, AirTran Airways, and JetBlue Airlines. Both Delta and JetBlue have generated fewer complaints per 100,000 passengers steadily since 2010.

·         Flight problems such as delays and cancellations were the top grievance for travelers, while other top complaint categories included baggage, customer service, and reservations/ticketing/boarding.

·         In many cases, the relative number of complaints about flight problems tracked the airline’s statistics for on-time performance and baggage handling complaints. Alaska Airlines, at the top of the pack for on-time arrivals, receives some of the fewest complaints about flight problems, while complaints about flight problems for United Airlines spiked from 2010-2012 while its on-time performance worsened.

The report also studied the effect of new penalties enacted by the Department of Transportation in 2011. Complaints about baggage have dropped since 2009, while the airlines are also reporting fewer mishandled bags to the DOT. In an effort to avoid fees for checked bags, fewer passengers are checking bags and fewer bags are being lost or mishandled.

The Arizona PIRG Education Fund has several recommendations to the DOT to improve the usefulness of the database, such as establishing a searchable public database in addition to its monthly reports.

The Arizona PIRG Education Fund also released a consumer tip sheet that explains a consumer’s rights if their flights are delayed or cancelled, or if their bags are lost or damaged by the airlines.

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View the Department of Transportation’s monthly reports: http://www.dot.gov/airconsumer/air-travel-consumer-reports.

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