These are the most complained-about companies — and here’s what we do with them

Race to the bottom

Can you guess which company gets the most complaints on this site?

You’re right, it’s an airline. And you probably can narrow it down to a list of three finalists.

I won’t keep you in suspense. Here’s our leaderboard for the first two months of 2016:

American Airlines 75
United Airlines 33
Delta Air Lines 17
Expedia 17
Southwest Airlines 14
Enterprise 10
Hertz 10
Royal Caribbean  6
Orbitz  5
Travelocity  5

I should clarify what I mean by “complaint.” These are formal and detailed grievances sent through our “Help” form – not complaints received by email, forums or through our commenting system. Our advocacy team responds to each one and tries to help find a solution.

How we advocate

We received 284 cases in January and 261 cases in February, which works out to a little more than 9 grievances a day. But what happens when they come in?

We use a Google form to capture the data. The information is sent to a spreadsheet (that’s where the company counts are derived) and automatically emailed to our advocacy team. We also back up the cases in the cloud.

Several times a day, our lead advocate, Jessica Monsell, will conduct what we call “triage” on the incoming cases. We have several possible options:

    • Assign the case to one of our advocates.
    • Send the case to our forums.
    • Reject the case.

We have a series of form letters that accompany each response. Why a form letter? Because there’s a lot of ground to cover, including the status of your case, what to expect, and anticipated response times. Also, as much as we’d love sending out personal letters, we just don’t have the time.

Actually, the most common form letter is the “paper trail” response. It’s neither an acceptance nor a rejection of the case, but a request for more information. Specifically, written information. We need to see evidence that you’ve asked a company to help and that it either has – or hasn’t – responded. We can’t make a decision until we see that proof.

Our advocacy team tracks the cases on an online spreadsheet, identifying grievances that are worth covering on the site. Contrary to popular opinion, we don’t choose the most scandalous cases to highlight. Cases are picked because of the lessons they offer readers, and also because they’re so darned interesting! OK, and sometimes, as an added benefit, they might be scandalous too.

Why we do it like this

There’s no training manual for starting a consumer advocacy site. The cases started coming in 20 years ago, and they haven’t stopped. At first, it was just me without any formal way of categorizing, tracking or responding to the grievances. But a system is necessary, if for no other reason than so I can report a list of the worst offenders.

A lot of my colleagues view complaints as nothing more than a source of stories. That’s how I felt about it for a long time. So keeping a database of complaints seemed like overkill. I also believed I could ignore some cases, especially if they were unlikely to become a story.

I don’t feel that way anymore. Anyone who reaches out to my team through the site deserves a straight answer, if not also our help. Our first responsibility is to assist the consumer, not to write a story. That’s a subtle but important shift for me. While I still consider what I do an act of journalism, it is secondary to an even greater mission: to help consumers.

This is heading in an interesting direction, from a single-author blog into a cause. I’m grateful that you’ve decided to join me — as a reader, commenter or one of our volunteers.

We have a team of people working behind the scenes to make the advocacy happen. If you’d like to join us, please let me know. Here’s my email address.

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 chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • Jeff W.

    And Spirit Airlines is not on this list? Makes me wonder…

  • Kerr

    Maybe Spirit isn’t the problem some people think it is?

  • Scott Fagen

    Raw numbers are pointless. The number of complaints compared to something like passengers, passenger-miles, trip segments, or itineraries to determine a rate of complaint is much more meaningful. AA carries orders of magnitudes more passengers per month than Spirit.

    Have a look: http://www.statista.com/statistics/269617/top-10-airlines-worldwide-by-number-of-passengers/

  • Steve Rabin

    Good point…AA/UA/DL are the most complained about because they are the biggest (and they have issues, but I won’t go there).

  • Michael__K

    Actually, I’m not sure how Spirit isn’t on the list. I count 5 complaints (matching Orbitz & Travelocity) on the blog and the forums for the first 2 months of 2016. And if the other totals are any indication, most of the complaints don’t even reach the blog or the forums.

    http://elliott.org/can-this-trip-be-saved/spirit-airlines-math-1764-divided-two-492/

    http://elliott.org/case-dismissed-2/kicked-soccer-team-off-plane-nice-work-spirit-airlines/

    http://forum.elliott.org/threads/stranded-by-spirit-in-houston.2309/

    http://forum.elliott.org/threads/spirit-cancellations-and-customer-service.2112/

    http://forum.elliott.org/threads/flight-insurance.2155/

  • Tracy T.

    Wow, I was certain a rental car company would have been at the top of the list. Interesting data to see regardless.

  • e santhin

    Easy to understand why Spirit is not on the list. Customers do not have any thought of service or customer relations. They understand what they pay for is what they get. No complaint’s.

  • just me

    Not a good point? Raw numbers have meaning here because this site does not list All-in-the world complaints. It could be that most of this site readers do fly AA but it may also mean that AA does poor job. Whichever it is – great many people were desperate enough to ask for help and share their experience. It does mean a lot.
    Particularly meaningless and deceiving is “per passenger-miles”. It is used to dilute signs of poor performance and poor service.

  • Gary K

    While I would tend to agree with you, AA having 2.25x UA and 4.5x DL in Chris’ log certainly is eye-catching. As I write this, AA has 500 airborne flights, DL 381 and UA 330, so the ratios of cases the Advocates have taken on for the big 4 certainly points to something out-of-whack for AA (even in the limited short-term dataset). The 4th is WN which has 406 flights right now, and the lowest case count, which tends to support the more positive/less negative popular view of the airline that’s out there.

    Spirit, OTOH, has all of 45 flights airborne right now, To me that doesn’t qualify as a significant air carrier, at least in this era, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that their customers have lower expectations than we do of the majors.

  • Scott Fagen

    “Number of complaints on elliott.org” is hardly a scientific sampling.

  • Gary K

    Oh, please, of course it’s not, but I think Chris did a far better job than many of explaining how the numbers were compiled, and what their process is. It’s a data point, or information, if you prefer, and if you want to ignore it, please do. My point was that, “in the limited short-term dataset”, it strikes me that AA is so out-of-line with the other 3 majors. Period.

  • Tinkerbellmarie

    Doubt it………..