Report: Consumer Tips

Not First Class: Flyer complaints soar as airlines cancel flights, deny refunds, ruin plans

Released by: CoPIRG Foundation and U.S. PIRG Education Fund

After being devastated by COVID-19 for most of 2020, the airline industry may be getting worse for customers. Sporadic mass cancellations by airlines may be the new norm. In November, American Airlines, the nation’s largest carrier, canceled more than 2,000 flights over a period of several days.

The month before, it was Southwest, the second largest, canceling more than 2,000 flights in one weekend. This summer, Spirit Airlines infamously canceled nearly 3,000 flights during an 11-day stretch.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of consumers are still trying to get $10 billion in refunds for flights canceled last year. The pandemic was the catalyst for much of the change in the airline industry that consumers find themselves dealing with now. 

The government acted fast last year to save the industry by giving airlines $50 billion intaxpayer money. The first $25 billion grant was aimed at saving 75,000 jobs; if that happened, each job cost $300,000 to save. 

The money kept the airlines from filing for bankruptcy and ended up protecting the shareholders’ investments. From April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021, U.S. passenger airlines lost $34 billion, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. They turned a profit of $1 billion in the second quarter of this year. The four largest airlines all posted profits in the third quarter of this  year.

Obviously, consumers and the economy need the airlines to exist, but it’s unclear how that money was used to help consumers. In theory, part of that money could have been used to refund flights that weren’t taken due to the pandemic or invested in the operations side of the airline industry to help it run better this year. If the taxpayer money had been invested adequately, complaint volume wouldn’t be so high and flights would be more punctual. 

Not every airline and airport reacted to the pandemic equally. The DOT’s Office of Aviation releases monthly Air Travel Consumer Reports that contain data on complaints against airlines, tour operators and travel agents, and data about flights departing and arriving on time. 

The DOT says a complaint is to be filed after an airline has had a chance to resolve an issue raised to the consumer's satisfaction. So complaints should point to how well airlines deal with issues. The complaints are publicly available. 

This enabled U.S. PIRG Education Fund to dive deeper into the state of the airline industry now, compared with periods during the last five and a half years. 

We looked at the data around more than 200,000 complaints against the airline industry and the data around flight departures and arrivals starting in January 2016. This analysis should help consumers to take as much as possible into account when deciding where to fly and through which airline.

KEY FINDINGS

  • The airline industry failed to adequately deal with customers whose flights were canceled. The most common complaint category for consumers was refunds, with 107,781 complaints from April 2020 through August 2021, the latest data available.
  • Southwest and Allegiant had the fewest complaints per 100,000 flyers since May 2020, indicating they likely dealt with the issues caused by the pandemic better than others. Frontier, United and Hawaiian had the most complaints per 100,000 flyers.
  • Punctuality dropped significantly in the summer of 2021 among seven of the 10 largest airlines.
  • Some airlines have good on-time arrival records. DOT defines on time flights as those arriving within 15 minutes of their scheduled time. Delta, Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines have been the most punctual since June 2020. Allegiant and JetBlue have been the least punctual.
  • Among 16 of the largest airports, San Francisco International Airport and Seattle–Tacoma International Airport have the best on-time departure records since May 2020; Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport and Denver International Airport have the worst.

 
Download the report for more information.

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