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

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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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  • MarkKelling

    I am happy to see fewer flight cancellations. Wasn’t the number of cancelled flights supposed to skyrocket because of the Tarmac Delay rule? There was even some study done (and I believe the focus of one article here) that supposedly proved cancellations were up due to the rule.

    The US & AA merger is done, they need to quit blaming their issues on it and start realizing that their overall policies are to blame for the unhappy customers.

  • It would be useful to see those complaint numbers as a ratio of total passengers flown. I suspect Spirit would be #1 and some of the lower-fare carriers (e.g. Allegiant) might not look so good.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    You might be careful taking Ross Feinstein’s word without double checking the facts. He used to be a PR shill for the TSA.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    If we use 2014 passenger data for most airlines (see http://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/press_releases/bts015_15), but even help Spirit and Fronteir out by using the higher 2015 emplanements, then the table below shows that Spirit isn’t really third worst, but absolutely worst by a very large margin, more than 4 times that of American or United, 16 times worse than Delta, and 22 times worse than Southwest. The data speaks for itself.

    Spirit – 131.8 complaints per million emplanements
    Frontier 85.0 complaints per million emplanements
    American/US Airways together – 32.8 complaints per million emplanements
    United – 30.2 complaints per million emplanements
    Envoy – 11.1 complaints per million emplanements
    Delta – 7.9 complaints per million emplanements
    Skywest – 7.2 complaints per million emplanements
    Southwest 5.9 complaints per million emplanements

  • MF

    Harvey, thank you for putting some perspective on the numbers that were reported. As the number of air travelers has increased, these kind of relative numbers become more significant.

  • MF

    Looks like the recent mergers were not so good for consumers, no surprises here!

  • jim6555

    I wonder how many of the complaints against American had to do with their 24 hour cancellation policy which differs from the industry standard? That issue was a major topic in yesterday’s postings and comments.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Great minds think alike. I thought as well that with Spirit being so high but only having a fraction of the flights as American or United reminds me of that scene in Romancing the Stone where Kathleen Turner gets on the bus to Cartahenia. :-)

  • Mondo Earnhardt

    And what did we expect when it was the us greyhound air management that took over! The worst airline in the world and has now come to what used to be my favorite! This stinks! 200000 I may never use ! No. 1 in big air complaints,not surprising! When you add the worst to the best you get super worst! Wheres my old aa that answered complaints and treated me well!
    And Mark when you add a dirty old stray to your collection,unless you clean it up first,you get fleas and may never get rid of them! Tell ya what Mark I’ll trade you mile for mile my aa for united,delta,even swa! Let me know!

  • John McDonald

    you want cheap, you get cheap. What’s the problem ?
    Need more competition, then open up the market.

  • John McDonald

    as people want ultra cheap fares, but 1st class service.
    Somehow that business model doesn’t work.
    Spirit & Allegiant are great airline making good money. If you don’t want to play by their rules & you don’t like them, fly someone else, pay more & stop complaining.

  • John McDonald

    all these numbers say are Spirit & Frontier passengers are less informed & expect more than they were ever getting. Fly cheap, don’t carry much luggage etc. These airlines have great fares if you limit your luggage etc.