REPORT: Airline complaints quadruple between 2019 and 2022 though fewer people fly

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BOSTON — The number of people who traveled on U.S. airlines last year remained below pre-pandemic 2019 levels. But consumer complaints about air travel in 2022 nearly quadrupled compared with 2019. And that doesn’t even include complaints from December, when poor airline performance spoiled many families’ holidays.

“Unreliable air travel has ruined too many special times for too many Americans the last couple of years. The Christmas weekend disaster just exposed everything that’s wrong with most of the airlines,” said Deidre Cummings, MASSPIRG Education Fund.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) on March 16 released most of its 2022 statistics on air travel. In a new report, The Plane Truth, U.S. PIRG Education Fund crunched the DOT data about complaints, cancellations, on-time arrivals, bumped passengers, lost and damaged luggage and wheelchairs, and more. DOT’s monthly air travel reports normally include details about complaints filed by consumers. For the first time in at least 25 years, however, this year-end report did not include complaint data for December. The agency said that’s because, after the airlines’ Christmas week debacle, there were too many complaints to tally in time for the year-end report’s deadline.

The top two complaint categories for the first 11 months of 2022 were (1) travelers not getting refunds for their canceled flights and (2) flight cancellations/delays.

How bad were cancellations? Airlines canceled more than 190,000 flights last year, 2.7% of all flights scheduled. Aside from during COVID-ravaged 2020, that was the largest number and largest percentage of cancellations since 2001 – the year air travel was disrupted for months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“The airlines have made short-sighted decisions about staffing, scheduling and technology,” said Cummings. “Bad weather can be a factor in cancellations, but storms don’t treat customers poorly: Airlines do. We wouldn’t see this avalanche of complaints if airlines took better care of travelers.”

The PIRG Education Fund report also looks at existing passenger rights, proposals by DOT and lawmakers to improve air travel and provide tips on what consumers can do to protect themselves. DOT has proposed several improvements including:

  • Requiring airlines’ to inform passengers whose flights are canceled for any reason that they are entitled to a full refund of the ticket price, baggage fees, taxes, etc. Airlines have often pushed credits or vouchers instead of offering refunds.
  • Requiring airlines’ to not charge an extra fee for a child under 13 to sit next to their adult travel companion.
  • Defining a “significant delay” as one lasting three hours or more for a domestic flight or six hours or more for an international flight.
  • Requiring more transparency in ancillary fees and disclosing the total ticket price up front, instead of just before you book the flight.

Additional recommendations to improve air travel include:

  • Reciprocity – Institute an industry-wide reciprocity agreement so passengers whose flights are canceled or delayed could have tickets transferred to another airline with seats available at no charge.
  • Better scheduling – Airlines should do a better job scheduling flights, so they’re not just putting flights on the schedule without regard to whether they really expect to fly the route at that time. Then they can cancel flights without any real repercussions, particularly because they’re not counted as cancellations if they’re scrubbed more than a week before departure. (They’re called “discontinued” flights.)
  • Accountability – DOT should do more to hold airlines accountable for chronically delayed, canceled or discontinued flights.
  • Enforcement – Eliminate federal preemption involving the airlines. The states should be able to enforce existing federal consumer protection laws, but they can’t. And the AGs aren’t happy about it – 35 states, including Massachusetts, signed a letter to Congress on this issue last August.

Help for passengers: Tips for flyers