Airline complaints surge nearly 30 percent in 2015, a 15-year high

By | February 21st, 2016

Airline complaints soared nearly 30 percent last year to a 15-year high, according to new numbers from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

American Airlines, which merged with US Airways, attracted the most complaints in absolute terms, while discount carrier Spirit drew the most grievances on a per-passenger basis.

The government received 20,170 complaints from consumers, up from the total of 15,539 complaints received in 2014. While grievances filed with the DOT represent only a fraction of overall complaints, they are thought to be a reliable barometer of airline customer service.

Most complained-about airlines of 2015

1. American Airlines (3,983)
2. United Airlines (2,721)
3. Spirit Airlines (2,069)
4. Frontier Airlines (1,037)
5. Delta Air Lines (1,025)
6. US Airways (751)
7. Southwest Airlines (754)
8. Allegiant Air (629)
9. Skywest Airlines (197)
10. Envoy Air (179)

The last time airline complaints exceeded 20,000 was in 2000, when the DOT recorded 23,381 grievances. The most complaints ever received by DOT in a year happened in 1987, when regulators recorded 44,813 complaints.

American Airlines dominated the rankings in almost every category for 2015. It had the most complaints about flight problems (1,094), oversales (152), reservations (506), fares (479), refunds (415), baggage (601), customer service (426) and disability issues (183). In only one category — discrimination — did American lose its top ranking to rival United Airlines.

American completed its merger with US Airways in 2015. When combined with US Airways’ complaints, the merged airline has no rival.

Ross Feinstein, an American spokesman, says the airline experienced operational difficulties related to its merger in 2015, which led its high complaint numbers.

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“We are confident that our performance will continue to improve throughout 2016,” he added.

Spirit’s ability to collect complaints was equally impressive. Although it is roughly one-twelfth the size of American, it still managed to draw 2,069 complaints, making it the third most complained-about airline in the United States.

Spirit did not have an immediate response to questions about its performance.

The DOT reports complaints so consumers can compare the overall complaint records of individual airlines to determine which airlines offer the best service “and select airlines based on that knowledge,” says spokeswoman Namrata Kolachalam. “The complaints also serve as a basis for investigations, rulemaking, legislation and research.”

The government data also revealed other key performance metrics for the U.S. airline industry. Among the key numbers:

  • As a group, airlines were more on-time in 2015. The reporting carriers posted an on-time arrival rate of 79.9 percent, up from 76.2 percent in 2014.
  • They canceled fewer flights for the year. Airlines canceled only 1.5 percent of their scheduled domestic flights, an improvement over the 2.2 percent cancellation rate in 2014, according to the government.
  • Airlines lost slightly fewer bags. For all of last year, the carriers posted a mishandled baggage rate of 3.24 per 1,000 passengers, down from 2014’s rate of 3.61.
  • The DOT numbers point to a growing divide between airlines and their passengers. They suggest that it’s possible to run an airline that performs well operationally but alienates its customers with draconian rules and unfriendly service. Domestic airlines may be safe, efficient and run on time, but passengers can’t stand to fly.
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