Why air travel complaints are on the rise

Complaints from Airline Passengers Are Soaring

Airlines are losing fewer bags and getting more customers to their destinations on-time, and yet complaints are on the rise, according to the latest report on air service for the first half of 2015 from Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics. According to the report, overall complaints about air travel rose to 9,542 in the six-month period between January and June 2015, up 20 percent from the same period in 2014 (when 7,935 complaints were lodged).

The latest data show that the total number of complaints about the 13 largest U.S. airlines rose to 6,412 for the first six months of 2015, up from 4,756. (One thing to take into account: more people were flying this year.) So to adjust for this variable, DOT uses another measure—the number of gripes per 100,000 "emplanements" (government-speak for passengers). That number too is up, though not so dramatically—from 1.50 to 1.89.

Still, percentage-wise, that's a significant uptick—so what's the problem? One answer can be found in the fine print of the report next to an asterisk: The DOT only began collecting data for Spirit Airlines starting this January, so the inclusion of that infamous outlier in the stats was bound to drive down the entire industry's overall performance. Spirit's complaint rate was the highest of all the carriers listed, with 11.20 per 100,000 passengers. About 30 percent of the complaints received by DOT concerned flight problems like delays and cancellations, categories in which no-frills lines like Spirit do particularly poorly; customer service also attracted a higher number of critiques. Spirit also led the industry in the number of chronically delayed flights and cancellations. Frontier's wasn't much better, with 10.71 per 100,000 passengers.

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Why air travel complaints are on the rise

1. Islamabad Benazir Bhutto International Airport, Pakistan

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2. Jeddah King Abdulaziz International Airport, Saudi Arabia

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3. Kathmandu Tribhuvan International Airport, Nepal

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4. Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Philippines

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5. Tashkent International Airport, Uzbekistan

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6. Paris Beauvais-Tille International Airport

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7. Frankfurt Hahn International Airport, Germany

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8. Bergamo Orio al Serio International Airport, Italy

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9. Berlin Tegel International Airport, Germany

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10. New York City LaGuardia International Airport, USA

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3. Helsinki International Airport, Finland

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5. Vancouver International Airport, Canada

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6. Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia

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7. Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong

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8. Tokyo Haneda International Airport, Japan

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9. Amsterdam Schiphol International Airport, Netherlands

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10. Zurich International Airport, Switzerland

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By contrast, most of the mainstream airlines performed better the overall industry average, with Southwest, for example, getting just .52 complaints per 100,000 fliers carried—and that's slightly better than the .54 it got the previous year. Delta and JetBlue also improved, with complaint rates of .72 and .88, respectively, down from .81 and 1.50 in 2014. Virgin America's rate went up a tad, from 1.00 to 1.27—but to put that in context, the total number of complaint letters received about the airline was just 42.

On "mishandled" luggage, meaning any bag that doesn't arrive with its owner, the airlines are doing better: the total number of stray bags for the six months ending in June was just over a million, or 3.52 per 1,000 fliers, down from 3.84 for the same period the year before. But fewer customers are checking bags these days anyway to avoid the fees; and most mishandled bags do show up within a day or two.

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