Report: Airlines’ refund policies, scheduling problems irk flyers

Media Contacts
Jacob van Cleef

Former Consumer Watchdog, Associate, PIRG

U.S. PIRG Education Fund finds flyers’ complaints increased by 460 percent from February 2020 to August 2021

PHILADELPHIA — When the COVID-19 pandemic turned life upside down in early 2020 and commercial flights came to a near-halt, the U.S. government gave the airline industry $50 billion to save jobs and keep the industry afloat. Since then, despite surviving because of their customers’ tax dollars, the airlines repeatedly have canceled and delayed flights, denied refunds and failed at customer service, according to complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Not First Class: Flyer complaints soar as airlines cancel flights, deny refunds, ruin plans, a new report released Thursday by PIRG’s research partner U.S. PIRG Education Fund, analyzes more than 200,000 DOT complaints going back to 2016.

“The airline industry is failing its customers and the country as a whole. They took our money to stabilize their wallets. Now, their profits are flying high at the expense of travellers not getting off the ground,” said Jacob van Cleef, a PIRG consumer watchdog associate.

The DOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection’s monthly reports detail how consumers are clamoring for refunds for flights canceled during the pandemic and are upset about several other issues, notably understaffing.

Some airlines are understaffed because they decided to use federal relief funds to buy out their workers and give them early retirement packages. Fewer workers and fewer flights mean each changed, delayed or canceled route affects a higher percentage of flights and flyers. While these problems are a direct result of the airlines’ actions, the companies generally refuse to issue refunds to many of their customers.

Key findings of our analysis:

  • The airline industry has failed to adequately deal with customers whose flights were canceled since March 2020. The most common complaint category for consumers was refunds.

  • Complaints still haven’t decreased to pre-pandemic levels. In 2021 through August, complaints have stayed above 3,000 per month. In August, the latest month for which data are available, complaints hit 6,666, compared with 1,190 in February 2020, the month before the pandemic hit. That volume in August is 460 percent higher than 18 months earlier.

  • Southwest and Allegiant were the airlines with 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.

  • On-time arrival records vary widely. Delta, Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines have been the most punctual since June 2020. Allegiant and JetBlue have been the least punctual.

  • Punctuality dropped significantly in the summer of 2021 among seven of the 10 largest airlines.

  • Among the 16 busiest U.S. 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.

U.S. PIRG Education Fund is releasing the report on the same day that the Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee publicly meets on Zoom to discuss refunds for canceled flights.

The report points out that airlines, cities and the federal government can all make changes to improve the experience of flyers. Consumers need to voice their concerns strongly to pressure those decision makers and they can push the Department of Transportation for change by sending an email to [email protected], van Cleef said.