How will a combined Continental-United fare in the customer service department?

The Department of Justice green-lighted the Continental Airlines-United Airlines merger late last week, and now the corporate celebrity wedding seems like a done deal. The combined airline will be the world’s largest, but how will it do in the customer-service department?

No one knows, of course.

But if the past is any indication of future performance, then here are a few numbers to consider:

Let’s start with consumer complaints. For the first six months of 2010, Continental had 350 complaints with the Transportation Department, or about 1.6 grievances per 10,000 enplanements. United recorded 487 complaints, or 1.8 grievances per 100,000 enplanements.

That’s a combined 837 complaints — still well below the 1,175 complaints filed against the industry leader, Delta Air Lines. It had 2.1 grievances per 100,000 enplanements, making it the most complained-about airline in 2010 so far.

Bear in mind that these DOT complaints represent just a fraction of the overall grievances against a particular carrier. Airlines actively lobby to have their complaints removed from their record or deferred to one of their regional carriers, in an effort to control this all-important number.

Another figure worth paying attention to: mishandled bags.

For the first six months of 2010, Continental reported 39,247 of them, or 2.5 per 1,000 passengers. Not bad — only AirTran and Hawaiian did better. United? Not so good. It lost 84,210 bags, or about 3.7 per 1,000 passengers.

Taken together, that still isn’t close to American Airlines’ abysmal 139,207 “misplaced” bags, or 4.1 per 1,000 passengers. (I’m not factoring regional carriers into this calculation.)

The final number to consider is oversales, particularly involuntary denied boarding (IDBs). That’s when the airline sells more seats than it has, and denies you a seat on a flight.

Continental is among the biggest offenders in this category, with a total of 4,172 bumps out of 17,950,872 passengers, or about 2.3 IDBs per 10,000 passengers. Only three airlines — all of them regional carriers — fared worse. United did a little better: 3,352 IDBs among 23,834,371 passengers, or 1.4 per 10,000 passengers. Put them together, and US Airways moves into the top spot among legacy carriers.

So where does that leave us? Well, it’s nothing to rave about, but the new Continental-United will probably be about average when it comes to customer service.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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