Report: Spirit is Most Complained-About Airline

New Report Analyzes Five Years of Air Passenger Complaints

A look at five years of consumer complaints into the department of transportation about airline travel. We analyzed tens of thousands of complaints to find out which airlines are coming up short and what travellers want to see improve.

Andrew Fish

MASSPIRG Education Fund

Boston, April 10 –Spirit Airlines passengers are most likely to complain about their experience, according to a report released today by the MASSPIRG Education Fund. Among major airlines, Spirit generates the most complaints for its size and generates an increasing number of complaints each year. Other bottom-ranking firms include Frontier Airlines, United Airlines, and American Airlines.

JetBlue, which maintains a hub in Boston, has seen steady improvement in total complaints since 2010.

The report, “The Unfriendly Skies: Five Years of Airline Passenger Complaints to the DOT,” analyzes complaints to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division about major U.S. airlines from 2009-2013. The report found that most complaints are about delayed or canceled flights, which were the top complaint category each year and have trended upward overall.

 “Flights are expensive, and consumers expect certain standards when they travel,” said Andrew Fish, MASSPIRG Program Associate. “These complaints show that some airlines are missing the mark, and need to act to improve service.”

The report examines complaints over a five-year period during which the industry saw consolidation and increased crowding of seats, gates, runways and airways. The congestion also led to complaints about excessive tarmac delays and lost or delayed baggage. At the same time, while airlines raised fares, they also raised customer ire by adding new additional fees for checked bags, seat selection, and other services that used to be included in the basic fare. Complaints about tarmac delays and lost baggage directly led to new rules from the Department of Transportation and an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights from Congress, but crowded skies keep delays common while complaints have continued to grow.

Some of the report’s findings include:

  • The airline that generated the most complaints per 100,000 passengers was Spirit Airlines, generating approximately three times more complaints per passenger than any other airline. Frontier Airlines, United Airlines, and American Airlines were also at the top of the rankings, with complaints per 100,000 passengers steadily increasing over the past few years.
  • The airlines that generated the fewest complaints per 100,000 passengers were Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, AirTran Airways, and JetBlue Airlines. Both Delta and JetBlue have generated fewer complaints per 100,000 passengers steadily since 2010.
  • Flight problems such as delays and cancellations were the top grievance for travelers, while other top complaint categories included baggage, customer service, and reservations/ticketing/boarding.
  • In many cases, the relative number of complaints about flight problems tracked the airline’s statistics for on-time performance and baggage handling complaints. Alaska Airlines, at the top of the pack for on-time arrivals, receives some of the fewest complaints about flight problems, while complaints about flight problems for United Airlines spiked from 2010-2012 while its on-time performance worsened.

The report also studied the effect of new penalties enacted by the Department of Transportation in 2011. Complaints about baggage have dropped since 2009, while the airlines are also reporting fewer mishandled bags to the DOT. This could be due to the increased penalties or the increased fees charged to passengers for checked bags. In an effort to avoid fees for checked bags, fewer passengers are checking bags and fewer bags are being lost or mishandled.

“This report has shined some needed light on airline complaint statistics as well as their deficiencies, that make it very difficult to be an intelligent consumer of airline services,” said Paul Hudson, President of  “With non-user-friendly complaint data, less consumer regulation than any other industry, dwindling U.S. competition, and protection against foreign competition, domestic airlines will have less and less incentive to provide good passenger service at fair prices.”

MASSPIRG Education Fund has made several recommendations to the DOT to improve the usefulness of the database, such as establishing a searchable public database in addition to its monthly reports.

MASSPIRG Education Fund also released a consumer tip sheet that explains a consumer’s rights if their flights are delayed or cancelled, or if their bags are lost or damaged by the airlines.

“Airline passengers should fly smart by knowing their rights, and make their voices heard by submitting a complaint to the DOT when they receive sub-par service,” said Fish.


Download the report: “The Unfriendly Skies: Five Years of Airline Passenger Complaints to the DOT.”

View the Tip sheet to know your rights as a traveller.

File a complaint with the Department of Transportation.


MASSPIRG Education Fund works to protect consumers and promote good government. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public, and offer meaningful opportunities for civic participation.


Andrew Fish