The Plane Truth Part 2

The best and the worst airlines for complaints, cancellations, refunds, losing luggage, bumping and more

Frontier, Spirit, JetBlue have worst complaint ratios. Meanwhile DOT data show American, Republic mishandled luggage the most; Allegiant, JetBlue had worst on-time records.

lightfieldstudios | Used by permission

Michael Mathews and his wife Marjorie booked a Delta flight from Detroit to Fort Lauderdale in January. They got ticket confirmation by email and, after calling Delta, even got seat assignments for flight 1378, confirmed through email. When he couldn’t get their boarding passes the day before their March 25 flight, he started making calls, only to be told that his ticket had been canceled. Delta blames his ticket agent, Farebubble.com. The ticket agent blames Delta.

The mind-blowing part of the story is Delta told him there were no seats available for the Saturday flight they had booked for $628 per ticket. But at the last minute, Delta sold him two seats on the exact same flight, 1378, for $1,708 each. And, they were the exact same seats – 28B and 28C. So the couple paid a total of $2,160 more for the trip they’d booked two months earlier. Plus they still haven’t gotten a refund for the $628 tickets. Again, Delta blames the ticket agent, which blames Delta.

Mathews filed a complaint this month with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which regulates airlines. It’s a process that has become more popular the last few years as airline performance has declined and problems have soared.

In fact, consumers filed more complaints against U.S. airlines last year than in any year in at least a quarter-century, according to new data from the DOT.

The DOT this month released details about the December complaints filed against U.S. and foreign airlines, travel agencies and tour operators on issues including cancellations, refunds, bumping and lost baggage.

SO MANY COMPLAINTS

Consumers filed more complaints against U.S. airlines last year than in any prior year going back to at least 1990, with 47,591 complaints filed against U.S. airlines last year. There was only one other year, 2020, with more than even 21,000 complaints against U.S. airlines. (Records before 1990 aren’t available, but experts say it’s highly unlikely more complaints were reported annually before consumers could file them online.)

Overall in 2022, consumers filed 77,656 total complaints against U.S. and foreign airlines, ticket websites, etc., the second-highest number behind refund-plagued 2020. But in 2020, two-thirds of the 102,550 complaints were against foreign airlines, leaving last year as the high point for U.S. carriers.

Other takeaways from the 80-page government report:

  • Nearly one-third of the complaints were about flight problems, which means cancellations and delays, propelling it to the top complaint in 2022. No. 2 was refunds and No. 3 was mishandled baggage, wheelchairs and scooters.
  • Frontier Airlines had the largest number of complaints per 100,000 boarded passengers, followed by Spirit Airlines and JetBlue
  • Horizon Airlines had the lowest complaints-to-passengers ratio, followed by SkyWest Airlines and Mesa Among the big four airlines, Delta fared best.
  • The complaints-to-passengers ratio was more than five times higher in 2022 than in 2019.
  • Complaints against ticket/travel agents were 13 times higher last year than in 2019.
PIRG Education Fund | TPIN

OTHER TAKEAWAYS

  • After adding in 16,876 complaints for December, the 2022 total was five times more than in 2019, the last normal pre-pandemic year, even though there were fewer passengers in 2022. Before the December complaints were released, the volume from January through November was quadruple the number for all of 2019.
  • Based on DOT data apart from complaints collected by DOT from consumers, American, Republic and Envoy had the worst records for mishandled baggage, measured per 100 checked bags. Allegiant and Hawaiian had the best records.
  • A subset of the baggage data is mishandled (damaged or lost) wheelchairs and scooters. Spirit and JetBlue were the worst with handling wheelchairs and scooters that are checked, with more than five per 100 damaged or Allegiant, Endeavor and Delta were best.
  • Frontier had the worst record on involuntary bumping in 2022, by a wide margin, measured by the number of passengers bumped involuntarily per 10,000. Meanwhile, Delta, Allegiant and Endeavor didn’t have a single passenger who was bumped involuntarily last year.
  • The 17 largest airlines last year had an on-time performance of 76.6%. It’s been below 77% only one other time in the last 15 years.

To be clear, 2022 was a bad year for the airlines long before the Christmastime meltdown. But the year-end winter storm disaster that ruined holiday plans for millions of families added more fuel to efforts by regulators and lawmakers to improve consumer protections on everything from scheduling to junk fees to family seating.

Our analysis of the numbers in this month’s DOT report – which shows complaints were at record highs and performance was among the worst years in a quarter-century –demonstrates there is considerable room for improvement.

At a meeting this month with DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other top DOT officials, Buttigieg told U.S. PIRG Education Fund and eight other consumer advocates that he wants the DOT under his tenure to accomplish the “strongest expansion of passenger rights in recent history.” To be sure, some meaningful steps have already been taken. But there is much that needs to be done.

* | Public Domain
Several of the top 10 airlines have marketing/codeshare partners. Those airlines are named separately in much of the data released by DOT.

RATIO OF COMPLAINTS-TO-PASSENGERS

One of the most interesting sets of data in the annual report looks at the volume of complaints for the 17 largest airlines, per 100,000 boarded passengers. This gives us an apples-to-apples view of the airlines.

Frontier Airlines’ ratio of complaints-to- 100,000 boarded passengers was twice as high as the next airline. Frontier received 20.3 complaints per 100,000 passengers in 2022, more than three times higher than in 2021. Frontier was followed by Spirit Airlines with 10.1 complaints per 100,000 and JetBlue Airlines with 9 complaints per 100,000.

In 2021, Spirit had the most complaints per 100,000 boarded passengers, at 11.5, followed by JetBlue with 6.4 and Frontier with 5.8.

Horizon Airlines had the lowest complaint ratio in 2022, followed by SkyWest Airlines and Mesa Airlines. Among the big four airlines, Delta fared best.

The complaint ratio average among the 17 airlines jumped from 3.1 in 2021 to 5.6 in 2022.

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For 2022, Southwest and Endeavor had the biggest ranking declines. Southwest’s complaints per 100,000 passengers tally jumped from 1.4 in 2021 to 6.8 in 2022.

For just December 2022, Southwest was at the bottom, with 73.06 complaints for 100,000 boarded passengers. Southwest in December had a catastrophic Christmastime meltdown, canceling about 17,000 of its flights in December, 15% of its flights.

Southwest was responsible for more than half of the 30,582 December cancellations for the 17 largest airlines.

There’s every reason to believe the 77,656 complaints do not represent all of the travelers who had issues in 2022 or had a basis to file a complaint. Millions and millions of travelers were affected in December alone, and some of those have told U.S. PIRG Education Fund they’re still hopeful of resolution before filing a complaint.

In any case, only a fraction of consumers actually file complaints about anything – It’s just human nature – even though the process through DOT is easy online or by phone.

Travelers can file complaints against U.S. airlines, foreign airlines, travel agents, tour operators or others. Notably, the DOT encourages consumers to try to resolve their issue with the airline or whoever they think is responsible before filing a complaint.

So the complaints generally represent those travelers who were unable to get an acceptable resolution.

Airlines are then required to acknowledge complaints filed with the DOT within 30 days and respond in writing within 60 days. Ticket agents are also expected to respond to consumer complaints, although there’s no timeline for replies.

PIRG Education Fund | TPIN

Consumers can file a complaint with the DOT about a host of issues. The categories are:

  • Flight problems: Cancellations, delays, missed connections.
  • Oversales: Bumping, regardless whether reimbursed according to federal law.
  • Reservations/tickets/boarding: Mistakes made by airlines or travel agents concerning reservations and ticketing, problems making reservations or getting tickets because of busy phone lines or waiting in line in person or delays in receiving tickets by mail.
  • Fares: Inaccurate or incomplete information about fares, fare costs in general, discount fares, overcharges, price increases.
  • Refunds: Problems getting a refund when a flight is canceled or when a ticket otherwise isn’t used or lost, problems with a fare adjustment.
  • Baggage: Lost, damaged or delayed baggage, including wheelchairs and scooters, charges for excess baggage, issues with carry-ons, difficulty filing a claim.
  • Customer service: Rude or unhelpful employments, issues with meals or cabin service, treatment of travelers who are delayed, dissatisfaction with seat assignments, problems with family seating.
  • Disability: Civil rights complaints by passengers with disabilities.
  • Advertising: Ads that are misleading, deceptive or offensive.
  • Discrimination: Civil rights complaints by passengers concerning race, national original, religion, etc.
  • Animals: Loss, injury or death of an animal under the airline’s care.
  • Other: Frequent flyer issues, and problems with cargo, airport facilities, injuries, sexual assault/misconduct and any other issues not in another category.

COMPLAINTS SKYROCKET AGAINST TICKET/TRAVEL AGENTS

The number of complaints against travel agents, which primarily means third-party booking websites, exploded in recent years, jumping from 436 complaints in 2019 to 14,604 in 2020. Complaint volume fell in 2021 and again in 2022, but still remains more than 10 times higher than pre- pandemic, at 5,852 complaints last year.

It’s all about refunds, or lack of.

While the third-party websites can help travelers find great deals on airline tickets (as well as hotels and other travel options,) the companies often finger-point when a refund is legally owed.

Just ask Michael and Marjorie Mathews, the Michigan couple who are out more than $3,400 after their nightmare trip to Fort Lauderdale last month. Although Delta sent the couple emails with the seat confirmations back in January, the airline said their tickets were somehow canceled and that no seats were available on their Saturday flight. Delta offered tickets for Sunday, but their beach home and car rentals started Saturday. Then Delta sold them the same tickets for the same seats on the same flight number on the same day at the same time – at nearly triple the price.

Mathews has spent hours and hours this month trying to get his $3,400 back. He filed a complaint with DOT and is trying to dispute the charge with his credit card issuer.

Delta tells him it can’t help because the original tickets were booked through Farebubble.com, he said.

“They claim that they are unable to send me the documentation that I have requested,” Mathews said. “I do not believe them, but what can I do? For the record, it took me almost two weeks, untold hours of phone calls and emails to get to this point with Delta.

“They purposely make it so difficult – most people would give up,” he said. “But I’m not going away.”

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Mathews’ issues are multi-layered and complex. But the frustration he shares with thousands of travelers is difficulty getting a timely refund. Part of the problem is that, while airlines are required by law to issue refunds within seven business days for tickets purchased with a credit card, “prompt is not defined” for ticket agents, according to DOT.

At a meeting this month with DOT Secretary Buttigieg and other top DOT officials, U.S. PIRG Education Fund asked why travel agents don’t have a refund deadline like airlines do. The explanation provided: Officials said there is sometimes disagreement between the airline and travel agent about who actually has the customer’s money.

The vast majority of complaints against travel agents/ticket websites concern refunds. The other leading categories are fares (such as inaccurate or incomplete information, or overcharges,) and reservations/tickets/boarding (such as mistakes with reservations or ticketing).

Of the 46 travel agents listed by the DOT, 11 had 100 or more complaints. In order, they are:

Expedia.com: 1,098

Kiwi.com: 521

JustFly.com: 377

GoToGate: 350

CheapOAir.com: 333

Priceline.com: 324

Orbitz.com: 236

EDreams.com: 216

Travelocity: 215

ASAPtickets.com: 209

Chase Travel: 185

 

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COMPLAINTS ABOUT CANCELLATIONS, DELAYS AND MISSED CONNECTIONS

Complaints about cancellations, delays and misconnections topped the list of grievances travelers filed with DOT in 2022. The flight problems at Christmastime – some understandable and some not – propelled this category to No. 1, pushing it past refunds.

There were 24,647 complaints about flight problems last year, up from 6,316 in 2021 and 4,757 in 2019. Flight problems made up 31.7% of all complaints. This category also included not getting reimbursed for expenses related to cancellations and delays.

Of the total flight problem complaints in 2022, 21,023 of them were against U.S. airlines. One-third of those – more than 7,000 complaints – were aimed at Southwest.

Here’s a breakdown of the 2022 flight problem complaints:

Cancellations: 16,434

Delays: 4,593

Missed connections: 2,232

Here’s the tally of flight problem complaints for U.S. airlines. DOT reports flight problem complaints for airlines that received at least 10 complaints in all categories combined.)

Southwest Airlines 7,087 Envoy 151
American Airlines 3,017 Sun Country Airlines 84
United Airlines 2,211 Hawaiian 82
Frontier Airlines 1,896 Breeze Airways 75
Spirit Airlines 1,521 Mesa Airlines 69
JetBlue Airlines 1,506 Alevo 38
Delta Air Lines 1,482 Silver 37
Allegiant 420 Piedmont 44
Alaska 300 Horizon 22
Republic 246 Eastern 18
SkyWest 224 Boutique 11
PSA Airlines 218 Cape 11
Endeavor 215 Elite Airways 1
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Among the 17 largest airlines, Republic Airways had the highest percentage of cancellations in 2022, at 4.7%, or 14,862 canceled flights.

Hawaiian Airlines had the lowest percentage, canceling less than 1% of flights in 2022.

Among the big four airlines, Southwest had the highest percentage of cancellations; Delta had the lowest.

Along with cancellations, there are delays. A flight is considered by the DOT to be on time if it arrived within 15 minutes of the scheduled time, meaning it wasn’t delayed or canceled.

There are similarities between the best and worst on the cancellation list and the best and worst on the not-on-time list.

Allegiant had the worst on-time record for 2022, at 63.4% on time. It was followed by JetBlue at 64.6% on time, and Frontier with 66.1% on time.

While some flights are delayed because of severe weather, security delays or heavy traffic, the single biggest reason for delays is an issue within the airline’s control, according to the DOT. “Examples include: maintenance or crew problems, cabin cleaning, baggage loading and fueling,”

DOT says. In 2022, issues within the air carrier’s control were the No. 1 reason for delays every month except in July.

The DOT every month, every quarter and every year releases details of the top airlines’ cancellation records.

But it only tallies flights not canceled within the last seven days.

The question this raises is whether airlines are putting together unrealistic schedules. As noted in our previous report in March, these cancellation and on-time performance numbers don’t include flights canceled more than seven days before departure. These are called “discontinued flights” and they’re not tracked by DOT. The airlines still owe customers refunds, but there are no consequences.

Even with DOT using the data it has about canceled and delayed flights, in February officials announced they’re asking about schedules, saying:

“DOT remains committed to ensuring airline passengers are treated fairly and is concerned about recent flight cancellations and flight disruptions. The Department is currently investigating four domestic airlines to ensure that they are not engaging in unrealistic scheduling of flights.”

We know one of the airlines is Southwest. The other three haven’t been publicly disclosed. The DOT says producing unrealistic flight schedules is considered under federal law to be “an unfair and deceptive practice.”

The DOT for the last year has been pressuring airlines to do right by customers when the airline is responsible for a cancellation or delay. DOT secured agreements from the top 10 carriers to take certain steps to accommodate customers in the event of a controllable cancellation or delay. Until last summer, none of the top 10 airlines guaranteed hotels or meals when they caused the cancellation or long delay.

Now, when a cancellation or delay within the airlines’ control delays a passenger by three hours or more:

  • All of the top 10 carriers will rebook a passenger on their own airline and provide money or a voucher for meals.
  • With a controllable cancellation, six will rebook a passenger on a partner airline or another airline with which it has an agreement, at no additional cost to the customer: Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue and United. But four will not rebook with another airline: Allegiant, Frontier, Southwest and Spirit.
  • With a controllable delay, five will rebook a passenger with a partner or another airline with which it has an agreement, at no cost to the customer: Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue and United. But five will not rebook with another airline: Allegiant, Frontier, Hawaiian, Southwest and Spirit.
  • All except Frontier will pay for a hotel and ground transportation to and from a hotel when a cancellation or delay within the airline’s control strands a customer overnight.

The airlines’ promises become part of its contract that the DOT says it will enforce. The commitments are publicly displayed on the DOT website on its Airline Customer Service Dashboard. The hope: That such an easy-to-understand, public- facing comparison will put pressure on the airlines to adopt more customer-friendly policies.

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COMPLAINTS ABOUT REFUNDS

Refunds were the top complaint in 2020 and 2021, but not in 2022. About 25.7% of complaints last year dealt with refunds – usually not getting one even in cases where required by law.

Nearly 20,000 complaints were filed about refunds last year. That’s nearly 20,000 ticket buyers – who may have purchased multiple tickets for their families – and in many cases, may still not have gotten their money back.

Remember that complaints are generally filed after an issue hasn’t been resolved with the airline directly; even one complaint about not getting a legally required refund is too many.

That said, refund complaints stayed between 600 and 1,600 a year from 2008 to 2019, although the trend was upward. The lid blew off in 2020, when more than 300,000 flights were canceled in the United States and 89,511 complaints were filed about refunds.

Experts determined that travelers were owed about $10 billion in refunds from 2020.

DOT says that, since 2021, DOT has helped get more than $1 billion refunded to travelers. That leaves a lot unaccounted for.

The DOT did fine a half-dozen airlines in November for taking too long to issue refunds. But it included only one U.S. airline – Frontier Airlines. The refunds involved flights that had been canceled or significantly delayed or changed. The airlines were ordered to refund more than $600 million in refunds and pay more than $7.25 million in civil penalties. DOT promised more enforcement; that hasn’t happened yet.

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COMPLAINTS ABOUT MISHANDLED LUGGAGE, WHEELCHAIRS

Consumers filed 12,007 complaints last year about baggage, up from 1,996 in 2021, and up from 2,565 in 2019, when there were more travelers and more checked bags.

Of 470 million bags boarded in 2022, the DOT says nearly 3 million were mishandled. It only counts checked baggage on direct flights, not connecting ones.

Three of the big four airlines – United, Southwest and American – had similar numbers of complaints, ranging from 1,033 to 1,119. The last of the big four, Delta, had fewer than half that amount, at 492 complaints.

For Frontier, which had less than 20 percent of the passengers and checked bags that Delta had last year, consumers filed 582 baggage complaints. DOT reports baggage complaints for airlines that received at least 10 complaints in all categories combined.)

As with many other consumer issues, the DOT actually quantifies baggage problems, aside from complaints.

DOT tallies incidents of bags that are lost, delayed or have items missing. The industry average for the 17 largest airlines last year was 0.63 per 100 bags. The airline with the worst record was American, with nearly one bag (0.94) out of every 100. The airline with the best record was Allegiant, with incidents with 0.16 bags per 100.

Of the big four:

  • American: 633,843 bags mishandled (0.94 per 100).
  • United: 320,596 bags mishandled (0.65 per 100).
  • Delta: 410,361 bags mishandled (0.55 per 100).
  • Southwest: 655,053 bags mishandled (0.54 per 100).

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It’s interesting that Southwest’s record wasn’t worse in 2022, considering that in December, it mishandled 117,145 bags, or 1.20 out of every 100, for one of the worst records. Southwest was one of the best in 2021, at 0.37 bags per 100 mishandled.

Among the items mishandled last year: 11,389 wheelchairs and scooters. This counts only those placed in the cargo compartment.

This is a bigger problem than might be immediately apparent because these often take weeks or months to get repaired because of repair restrictions.

Eleven of the 17 airlines had worse records for wheelchair/scooter handling in December than for the full year: Endeavor, Horizon, United, Mesa, Hawaiian, Alaska, Southwest, American, PSA, JetBlue and Spirit.

If travelers’ bags are lost, pilfered or delayed, they do have rights, including a refund for any checked bag fees and reimbursement for lost items, up to $3,800.

And DOT counts wheelchairs and scooters put in the cargo compartment as bags.

But devices used to assist passengers with disabilities are not subject to the $3,800 limit if they’re lost or damaged on domestic flights. “If an airline destroys or loses a $20,000 assistive device during a domestic flight, the airline is liable for $20,000,” DOT says. “If an airline damages but doesn’t destroy a $20,000 assistive device, then the airline is liable for the damage up to the cost of original purchase price.”

Assistive devices are defined as those that help people with a disability to see, hear, communicate, maneuver or perform other everyday tasks.

Assistive devices include but aren’t necessarily limited to:
  • Crutches, canes, and walkers
  • Braces/prosthetics
  • Wheelchairs
  • Hearing aids
  • Portable oxygen concentrators
  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines
  • Prescription medications and any devices needed to administer those medications, such as syringes

Airlines have been required to report incidents with wheelchairs and scooters separately since January 2019.

BUMPING IS ON THE RISE

Anyone who has flown recently knows most flights are really full. Sometimes too full.

To maximize the number of passengers who can get somewhere, and to maximize revenues, airlines often oversell tickets.

They believe, based on algorithms, that a certain number of passengers won’t show up for a specific flight, either for personal reasons or because their previous flight was too late to catch the connecting flight. Those no-show predictions often hold close to reality. But when too many passengers line up for a particular flight, decisions have to be made.

Airlines that are oversold generally ask for volunteers and offer another flight plus compensation of varying amounts to those who give up their seats willingly.

Of the 309,503 travelers bumped from flights with the 17 largest U.S. airlines, more than 90 percent volunteered when asked.

But that left 25,013 bumped or “denied boarding” involuntarily.

The percentage of passengers bumped involuntarily in 2022 nearly doubled from 2021.

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By a wide margin, Frontier had the worst record on involuntary bumping in 2022, with 2.66 passengers bumped involuntarily per 10,000 boarded passengers. At Frontier, 6,081 were denied boarding voluntarily, while 9,731 agreed to be bumped.

Frontier’s record was nearly four times as bad as the next closest airline, Envoy Air, where 0.67 passengers per 10,000 boarded were denied boarding involuntarily.

Meanwhile, Delta, Allegiant and Endeavor didn’t have a single passenger who was bumped involuntarily.

Frontier had 2.9% of all boarded passengers but 24% of involuntary denied boardings.

As for complaints, Frontier had 200 complaints filed against it regarding bumping. That represented 21% of the 972 total bumping complaints.

Just because an airline didn’t bump anyone involuntarily doesn’t mean all passengers were happy. The three airlines that didn’t involuntarily bump a single person still had a combined 120 complaints against them.

Involuntary bumping has been on the rise the last few years. Last year’s 0.32 per 10,000 boarded passengers is the highest level since 2017.

Volunteering to get bumped from a flight can be lucrative, particularly in recent years. For example, last June, Delta oversold a flight from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Minneapolis, Minn. Eight travelers ended up with $10,000 to give up their seats. On another Delta flight, this one in July from LaGuardia Airport in New York to West Palm Beach, Fla.,  travelers were offered up to $3,000.

Airlines seem more willing to offer generous amounts after an awful incident in 2017. An overbooked United Airlines flight from Chicago resulted in a Kentucky doctor being knocked unconscious after airline representatives forcibly removed him

from the plane. He declined to give up his seat because he said he had patients to see the next day. He was left bleeding, had teeth knocked out and his glasses were broken. A video of the confrontation went viral on social media. The doctor settled with United for about $140 million.

The $10,000 and $3,000 offers involved passengers who, like the Kentucky doctor, were already on board. It’s more customary for travelers to get offers of a few hundred or maybe $1,000 or so for relinquishing their seat before they board.

For passengers who are bumped involuntarily, the airline must provide compensation if the person will be delayed one hour or more.

  • For domestic flights with a one- to two-hour delay, the compensation is double your one-way fare, up to $775.
  • If the delay is more than two hours, the compensation is quadruple your one-way fare, up to $1,550.
  • The compensation levels are higher for international flights.

Last year, 1,336 travelers filed complaints about bumping – indicating they likely weren’t satisfied with whatever happened.

That’s more than four times as many as in 2021 and more than three times as many as in 2019.

DOT IS INVESTIGATING “UNREALISTIC” SCHEDULING

The 2022 avalanche of complaints clearly was fueled by December, when DOT received 16,876 traveler complaints, the third highest level for a single month. Nearly 22 percent of the year’s total came in December. More than half of those complaints were filed against Southwest, DOT said. The only two months in history when travelers filed more complaints were April and May 2020, with 19,856 and 21,914 complaints, respectively.

The 8,729 complaints filed in December against Southwest stemmed largely from the airline’s technology breakdown that stranded millions of travelers.

The DOT said it launched “a rigorous and comprehensive investigation” into Southwest’s issues and, more broadly, whether it “engaged in unrealistic scheduling of flights,” which is regarded as “an unfair and deceptive practice” under federal law, DOT said. In addition, the DOT said it will hold Southwest accountable on the airline’s promise to refund tickets and reimburse customers for related expenses.

And DOT said it’s also currently investigating three other U.S. airlines about whether they are producing unrealistic flight schedules.

Just as December’s complaint data was released more than a month late, January’s complaint data is late and is expected to be released in early May. Without that, it’s unknown whether complaint levels are going back to normal, or the new normal.

The airlines have three big issues, and two of them can be easily addressed:

  • The airlines say they still have staffing challenges, particularly for pilots.
  • Airlines cancel and delay too many flights.
  • When flights are canceled or significantly delayed, they often don’t issue timely Or, if the traveler prefers rebooking on the next-available flight on that airline or another carrier at no extra charge, the airlines often don’t do that.

Staffing shortages take time to fix. But if airlines don’t have enough staff, or enough other resources for flights they’re scheduling, then they should not schedule them to begin with. And if flights are disrupted, and customers can’t be or don’t want to be rebooked at no cost, the airlines should refund customers quickly and without hassle.

Just these steps would go a long way toward addressing the problems the airlines have been causing for consumers the last few years.

The complaint record, at this point, was 102,550 in 2020 — obviously driven by COVID and cancellations and the lack of refunds. The total has exceeded 20,000 in a year only six times in 26 years.

Years that complaints topped 20,000:

2020: 102,550

2022: 77,656

2021: 49,991

2000: 23,381

1999: 20,438

2015: 20,175

Complaints have been at 10,000 or higher every year starting in 2007, with the exception of 2009, when there were 8,821.

We wonder whether, this year, we will see fewer than the record 47,591 complaints filed against U.S. airlines last year. The airlines can do better and consumers deserve better.

We’re entering into what experts predict will be another busy travel season. We hope that, soon, air travel will return to the higher standards we enjoyed before 2020.

WHAT’S BEING PROPOSED IN WASHINGTON

In Congress:

  • Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, introduced in January It covers a lot of territory: Compensation for people whose flights are delayed or canceled by staffing, schedule snafus, equipment etc. Also protections and compensation for bumped passengers, better customer service, unreasonable fees, pricing disclosures, refunds and more.
  • FAIR Fees Act, introduced February 2023. (FAIR stands for Forbidding Airlines from Imposing Ridiculous Fees Act of 2023.)
  • Emergency Vacating of Aircraft Cabin Act, introduced in December 2022. Deals with seat size, primarily for safety reasons. This issue is already on the books as part of a past FAA Reauthorization. If seats are too small and crammed too close together without enough leg room, it can make it impossible for a plane full of passengers to evacuate within 90 seconds, as is required by law.
  • The Senate in March held a hearing on Enhancing Consumer Protections and Connectivity in Air Transportation.

The DOT has:

  • Told airlines they must do better with refunds. DOT said its November enforcement action against a half-dozen airlines in November for taking too long to issue refunds won’t be the last civil penalties issued if the airlines don’t get their act in gear and provide timely refunds as required by law.
    This enforcement included only one U.S. airline – Frontier Airlines. The refunds involved flights that had been canceled or significantly delayed or changed. The airlines were ordered to refund more than $600 million in refunds and pay more than $7.25 million in civil penalties.
  • Proposed new protections for travelers owed a refund by defining when refunds must be offered:
    1. When a flight’s departure or arrival time varies by three hours or more than scheduled for a domestic flight. The threshold is six hours or more for an international flight.
    2. When the departure or arrival airport changes.
    3. When the number of connecting flights increases.
    4. When the type of plane causes a “significant downgrade in the air travel experience” or amenities
  • Told the airlines it wants better transparency in pricing. The DOT wants to make sure consumers have access to more fee information upfront.
    Under the rule, airlines and “travel search websites” would have to disclose any fees to sit with your child, change or cancel your ticket or to check or carry on any bag.
    The disclosures would be required the first time the airfare cost is displayed.
    “The proposal seeks to provide customers the information they need to choose the best deal. Otherwise, surprise fees can add up quickly and overcome what may look at first to be a cheap fare,” DOT said in a statement.
  • Strongly encouraged U.S. airlines “to do everything in their power to ensure that children who are age 13 or younger are seated next to an accompanying adult with no additional charge.” DOT said it receives complaints involving babies as young as 11 months old who are not able to be seated next to their adult travel companion. DOT this month submitted a legislative proposal to Congress on this issue.
  • Has taken some steps to improve travel for consumers. In summer 2022, for example, it unveiled an Airline Customer Service Dashboard that discloses the various policies for the 10 largest airlines and how customer-friendly or not those policies are.
    The dashboard states the airlines’ commitments on these issues; they can’t go back on their word to the DOT. The three policies outlined for now are:

    1. Commitment to Fee-Free Family Seating, which “guarantees adjacent seats for (a) child 13 or under and an accompanying adult at no additional cost for all fare types subject to limited conditions.”
    2. Commitments for Controllable Cancellations.
    3. Commitments for Controllable Delays.

States want to:

  • Eliminate federal preemption involving the airlines. The states should be able to enforce existing federal consumer protection laws, but they can’t. Airlines are just about the only industry that is protected from state enforcement of consumer protection laws. And 35 of the state attorneys general signed a letter to Congress on this issue last August.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Prioritize resolving chronic cancellations and delays

Besides safety issues, this should be the top priority for the DOT/FAA. As we found in our March analysis of data from the DOT,

U.S. airlines last year canceled 190,038 flights in the United States, or 2.7% of all scheduled flights. And 1.44 million more flights – 20.6% – were delayed.

Setting aside 2020, those 2022 numbers represented the highest number of cancellations and the highest percentage of cancellations since 2001. (Airline travel that year of course was disrupted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.)

The 2022 cancellation numbers are simply stunning. DOT should investigate the reasons behind this escalation and work with the airlines on what needs to be done to improve these numbers quickly. DOT said this year it’s conducting a probe involving at least four airlines (one is Southwest) about the recent flight cancellations and disruptions. The problem may go deeper than four airlines. The DOT says producing unrealistic flight schedules is considered under federal law to be “an unfair and deceptive practice.”

Flight problems (meaning cancellations/delays) was the No. 1 consumer complaint to DOT for 2022, comprising 44% of complaints. Flight problem complaints were nearly four times as high as in 2021 and five times as high as in 2019; even though there were fewer passengers both of those years.

In addition to the increase in cancellations, the airlines’ on-time performance also suffered in 2022. A flight is considered by the DOT to be on time if it arrived within 15 minutes of the scheduled time, meaning it wasn’t delayed or canceled.

On-time arrivals for the top 17 U.S. operating airlines the last five years:

2022: 76.6%

2021: 81.2%

2020: 84.6%

2019: 79.2%

2018: 79.7%

As mentioned, the on-time rate has been below 77% only one other time since 2008. If 1 percentage point difference doesn’t seem like much, it’s notable because that means thousands of flights.

Get an actual picture of cancellations

DOT doesn’t know the full scope of cancellations because it tallies only flights canceled within seven days of the planned departure date. Flights that get scrubbed more than seven days before departure are considered “discontinued flights.” DOT doesn’t keep track of “discontinued flights.”

So while a flight that gets canned eight or 10 days before a trip might be a hassle to rebook – possibly causing a traveler to face higher prices or no available seats – it doesn’t count against the airline. This must change. How can DOT hold airlines accountable for large numbers/percentages of cancellations when DOT doesn’t even know how many cancellations there are?

Enforce the law on refunds

Full refunds are required by law when an airline cancels or discontinues a scheduled flight, for any reason. Full refund includes baggage fees, seat fees, taxes, etc. Refunds are due within seven days if payment was by credit card, and within 20 days if payment was by cash or check.

Issues with refunds was the No. 2 consumer complaint in 2022, with 19,983 consumer complaints about refunds. That is more than 10 times higher than the number of refund complaints in 2019, the last normal, pre- pandemic year.

If a traveler can’t be or doesn’t want to be rebooked, airlines should not try to offer consumers a credit or voucher first instead of a refund.

The volume of refund complaints indicates too many consumers aren’t getting timely refunds, even when they ask for them. And we believe, based on human nature, that complaints actually filed represent only a fraction of consumers who were mistreated.

The DOT did penalize a half-dozen airlines in November for taking too long to issue refunds. But it included only one U.S. airline – Frontier Airlines. The refunds involved flights that had been canceled or significantly delayed or changed. The airlines were ordered to refund more than $600 million in refunds and pay more than $7.25 million in civil penalties.

This regulatory action by DOT doesn’t scratch the surface to address the extent of the problem. Consumers are still owed upwards of $10 billion from flights canceled during the pandemic. DOT says that, since 2021, DOT has helped get more than $1 billion refunded to travelers. Where’s the other $9 billion?

Hold ticket agents accountable for refunds too

In addition, the DOT should demand that ticket/travel agents (mostly online booking sites) comply with the deadlines to issue refunds. DOT policy says: “Airlines and ticket agents are required to make refunds promptly. For airlines, ‘prompt’ is defined as being within 7 business days if a passenger paid by credit card, and within 20 days if a passenger paid by cash or check.

For ticket agents, prompt is not defined.”

At an in-person meeting in Washington on April 10, 2023, with Secretary Buttigieg and key top staffers, we asked why there is no deadline for ticket agents to issue refunds. We were told there is disagreement in many cases about who is holding the money – the airline or the ticket agent. Unacceptable.

Someone should find this out. We hear from far too many consumers who can’t get refunds for months because of the finger- pointing between ticket agents and airlines. A total of more than 28,000 consumer complaints were filed with DOT against travel agents during 2022, 2021 and 2020.

That’s an average of more than 9,000 per year for the last three years. Pre-pandemic, in 2019, there were just 178 refund complaints against ticket agents.

Require delay compensation

There is compensation for passengers who are bumped, but not for those whose flights are canceled or delayed by three or more hours. When this occurs within 14 days before the scheduled departure date – due to issues within the air carrier’s control – affected travelers should receive compensation. (Examples of “within the air carrier’s control” include: maintenance or crew problems; cabin cleaning; baggage loading; and fueling.)

Such compensation should be automatic; travelers shouldn’t be required to apply for it. This could be modeled after current European Union regulations to incentivize greater airline operational performance and compensate travelers.

Require airlines to cover hotel and meal costs when travelers are stranded by delays and cancellations

Airlines have inconsistent policies for covering passengers’ meal and hotel costs when they’re affected by cancellation or lengthy delay within the airline’s control, as defined by the DOT.

Congress should require airlines to provide this compensation, similar to what’s required under EU regulations.

Require plain language notices of passenger compensation rights

One of the biggest issues we see is that way too many consumers do not know their rights as airline travelers, or that they even have rights to begin with. The rights they have under U.S. and international law should be displayed throughout public airports and on airlines’ mobile apps and websites. Such notices should specifically include rights afforded by the Montreal Convention and the EU’s Flight Compensation Regulation.

Require fee transparency

Airlines and third parties should disclose all fees up front, as part of the ticket price, and clearly spell out any ancillary fees for baggage, seat selection, etc., before a traveler gets ready to click the button to book the flight. This would allow consumers to better compare prices and would promote competition between airlines.

Ensure that parents and caregivers can be seated with their minor children at no additional charge if seats are available at booking

Congress has previously urged the DOT to act on family seating requirements in the 2016 FAA Reauthorization, yet the DOT is only now initiating a rulemaking on the issue – a lengthy process that is beginning almost seven years late. The White House has called on Congress to pass a bill to ensure that parents and caregivers are not required to pay a fee to sit next to their minor children on a flight; this would bypass the need for a lengthy DOT rulemaking process.

Establish minimum standards

Passengers should be entitled to, as part of their ticket price: a seat, a boarding pass, customer service for check-in, a personal item, a carry-on item, water and an accessible lavatory. Air carriers should also be encouraged to offer a toll-free customer service phone number, with adequate staffing so that wait times are reasonable. We know at least one major carrier recently eliminated its customer service phone number.

Establish a minimum passenger seat size

Shrinking seat sizes cause health risks and create evacuation hazards. The 2018 FAA Reauthorization required the FAA to set minimums for passenger seat width and pitch within one year of the reauthorization’s enactment. Years later, the FAA still hasn’t enforced this.

Empower state attorneys general to enforce existing federal consumer protection laws

The DOT doesn’t have enough resources to address the avalanche of valid complaints from travelers. For example, despite record levels of consumer complaints the last three years, the DOT has completed only one enforcement action against one U.S. airline.

Interpretations of the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act’s preemption of the regulation of conduct prevents states from protecting travelers in most cases.

Eliminating federal preemption and allowing state attorneys general to share enforcement of existing federal consumer protection laws will give consumers more outlets to make sure their rights are being protected. A bipartisan coalition of 35 state attorneys general in 2022 urged Congress to act.

Establish a private right of action to allow consumers to get federal consumer protection laws enforced

Travelers should be able to file their own actions when they experience unfair, deceptive or discriminatory practices. This would provide another way to hold air carriers accountable.

Topics
Authors

Teresa Murray

Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.

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