The Plane Truth 2024

Alaska, Southwest, Delta have fewest complaints while Frontier, Spirit and JetBlue have the most as complaint volume hits new record high

rawpixel via 123rf.com | Used by permission
Air travel is getting a little better but hasn't returned to pre-COVID performance.
View the full report

We’ve known since last fall that air travelers were complaining at record levels in 2023. Now we know how much. And we also know now which U.S. airlines had the lowest complaint levels, and which had the highest.

Complaints against U.S. airlines increased by nearly 29% in 2023, even though the number of passengers increased by only 11%. Complaints hit a new record, estimated at 61,233; the previous record was 47,591 in 2022.

The Department of Transportation released complaint data on July 5 – five months after the numbers for a given year normally come out. An avalanche of complaints throughout 2023 caused the delay, coming in at such a fierce rate that DOT workers (even with help from artificial intelligence) couldn’t keep up.

It’s a phenomenon that started in 2020 and hasn’t subsided. Air travelers are mad as heck and they’re demonstrating they’re not going to take it any more. 

* | TPIN

We crunched all of the 2023 numbers and found:

  • American Airlines had the most complaints, but it also had the most passengers and flights.
  • Frontier had the worst ratio of complaints to passengers, the benchmark the DOT uses. Frontier’s complaint ratio was more than twice as high as the next airline, Spirit. JetBlue has the third-highest complaint ratio.
  • Alaska had the best complaint ratio, followed by Southwest and Delta.
  • The middle of the pack among the 10 largest airlines: American, Allegiant, Hawaiian and United.
  • Only three airlines had better complaints ratios last year than in 2022: Alaska, Southwest and Allegiant.
  • The 61,233 total complaints for U.S. airlines was expected to be higher because complaint volume in the first part of the year was double the previous year’s volume. But the pace slowed during the second half of the year, especially during October, November and December. 

COMPLAINTS KEEP GETTING WORSE

Of the 10 largest airlines, 7 had an increase in their complaints ratio in 2023 compared with 2022. Only 3 improved. The numbers are based on an analysis of DOT data by U.S. PIRG Education Fund.

* | TPIN

One of the biggest problems and reasons for complaints in years past – cancellations – dropped in half compared with 2022. Delays declined compared with 2022 but the on-time percentage remains below any other year since 2014. Meanwhile, incidents of lost or damaged bags and wheelchairs improved slightly. Those problems are tracked separately by DOT, without regard to complaints from passengers.

The lack of refunds is the other huge source of complaints from years past. But DOT didn’t release details on the categories of complaints for 2023 – only the topline numbers and totals for each airline and travel agents.

This all clearly shows the airline industry needs to do much more to quell the rage among travelers and get back to pre-pandemic norms. For now, though, we can celebrate the dozens of new passenger protections coming in the months ahead, dealing with refunds, banned fees, 24/7 live customer service and more. These were put into law in the FAA Reauthorization Bill passed by Congress last month and a few other new regulations approved or planned by DOT. This shows that lawmakers and regulators pay attention to our complaints. 

View the full PLANE TRUTH 2024 report

* | TPIN

COMPLAINTS AGAINST U.S. AIRLINES

Complaints against U.S. and foreign airlines started soaring in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and flights, vacations, weddings and just about all discretionary travel plans were canceled for months. The problem: Travelers are entitled to a refund for flights canceled by the airline, no matter the reason. However, airlines frequently didn’t provide refunds; instead they steered customers to credits and vouchers that expired way too quickly.

Then later in 2021 and into 2022, when consumers wanted to travel again, the airlines weren’t ready with staffing and scheduling. Travelers complained at levels never seen before about lack of refunds, cancellations, delays, getting bumped from flights, and lost or damaged baggage or wheelchairs.

The DOT started getting buried in complaints in 2022, especially after the Christmastime meltdown that stranded millions, some until after the week after New Year’s. The 2022 complaints data was released two months late. The first five months of 2023 complaints data was released later in 2023.

After the May 2023 numbers, DOT stopped releasing complaints data for the last seven months of 2023 and said they’d release it all at one time. That’s what occurred July 5, 2024. But it doesn’t include the detail of years past, which broke down complaints by type. The top three for years have been refunds, cancellations and delays and baggage, comprising nearly three-fourths of all complaints. Other issues complained about most: reservations, fares, customer service and problems faced by those with disabilities.

With the data released July 5, the DOT said it tallied only total submissions and didn’t break out complaints, opinions, compliments and information requests. It did, however, point out that complaints comprised 91% of submissions the last three years. However, the percentage has been trending down; in 2022, it was 90%. We split the difference and used 90.5% for all 2023 calculations. 

That amounted to 61,233 complaints for U.S. airlines, 24,991 for foreign airlines and 3,162 for travel companies such as third-party online ticket agents. While the total for U.S. airlines increased significantly compared with 2022, the volume for foreign airlines and travel companies declined.

* | TPIN

THE BEST AND THE WORST

The DOT traditionally uses complaints per 100,000 boarded passengers to compare levels of dissatisfaction with individual airlines.

Once again, Frontier fared worst among the 10 largest airlines, with a complaint ratio of 32.99, more than double that of the next airline, Spirit, which had a complaint ratio of 14.76. JetBlue also had a double-digit ratio, at 13.32.

Alaska fared best, at 2.34, followed by Southwest and Delta, at 3.61 and 3.64 respectively. The middle four were American, Allegiant, Hawaiian and United, which had ratios ranging from 5.97 to 7.47.

Only three of the airlines saw an improvement in complaints from 2022 to 2023: Alaska, Southwest and Allegiant. 

Frontier has garnered the worst complaints ratio for four of the last five years. 

CANCELLATIONS, DELAYS AND BAGGAGE

Cancellations declined significantly in 2023, with the percentage of flights canceled dropping in half compared with 2022. The cancellation rate was 1.29% of all scheduled flights in 2023, down from 2.71% in 2022.

The cancellation figures include only flights canceled within seven days before the planned departure date. Flights that get scrubbed more than seven days ahead of time are considered “discontinued flights.” So while a flight that gets canned eight or 10 days before your trip might be a hassle to rebook – possibly facing higher prices or no available seats – it doesn’t count against the airline. This little-known fact about “discontinued” flights had been kept largely under wraps until cancellations started becoming such an enormous problem in 2022.

The 10 largest airlines and their codeshare marketing partners canceled 93,897 flights in 2023, down from 190,038 in 2022.

Delays declined slightly. Of the 7.28 million flights scheduled in 2023 by the top 10 airlines, 78.3% arrived on time. That compares with 76.7% on-time for 2022. A flight is considered delayed if it’s at least 15 minutes late or canceled. A significant delay is at least three hours.

For baggage, of the 485.9 million checked bags, about 2.8 million were mishandled, meaning lost or damaged. The mishandled baggage rate for 2023 – 0.58% – is an improvement over the 0.64% rate in 2022.

Likewise, of the 834,327 wheelchairs and scooters checked, 11,527 were mishandled in 2023. The mishandled rate was 1.38%, down from 1.41% in 2022. 

RECOMMENDATIONS

Four years after the pandemic brought much of the world to a halt and Congress gave the airlines $54 billion to keep them in business, some aspects of air travel have improved. Cancellations dropped in half in 2023 compared with 2022, to the extent we know how many flights are truly being canceled, because the DOT tallies only those canceled within one week before departure.

With checked baggage, about 2.8 million were mishandled, meaning lost or damaged. With checked wheelchairs and scooters, 11,527 were mishandled in 2023. The lost or damaged rates for both did improve slightly from 2022. Flight delays also improved slightly compared with 2022.

And complaints jumped by 29% compared with 2022. This means that even when problems are brought to the airlines’ attention, they’re not resolving them. 

Here are some of the things that need to happen to improve air travel: 

  1. Airlines should focus on realistic scheduling, fast refunds for canceled flights even before the new law takes effect, transparent pricing upfront instead of add-on gotcha fees, and quick resolution of problems so consumers don’t need to file a complaint.
  2. The DOT should focus more on accountability from the airlines, particularly regarding scheduling, excessive cancellations and delays, slow-rolled refunds and disproportionately high complaint volume for some airlines. The complaint volume paints a clear picture of where change is needed most, both in terms of the airlines with the most unresolved problems and the practices at various airlines that generate the most complaints. Frontier, Spirit and JetBlue have double-digit complaint ratios – far higher than the other seven major airlines.In February 2023, the DOT said it launched “a rigorous and comprehensive investigation” into possible “unrealistic scheduling” by four airlines, including Southwest, which had a meltdown over the Christmas holidays in 2022. Unrealistic scheduling is regarded as “an unfair and deceptive practice” under federal law, the DOT said. We haven’t learned about any findings or actions. It’s irresponsible and harmful if airlines sell tickets to flights in bad faith, because last-minute cancellations can wreak havoc on travelers’ lives and wallets.
  3. At the same time, the DOT should revise its definition of a canceled flight to include more than just those canceled within seven days of the departure date. Right now, those are considered “discontinued flights” and the DOT doesn’t even tally them nor do the airlines.
  4. Congress should allow state attorneys general to enforce federal consumer protection laws involving the airlines. Most states want to and should be able to do this, but they can’t. Airlines are just about the only industry that is protected from state enforcement of consumer protection laws. A bipartisan group of 35 state attorneys general signed a letter to Congress on this issue in August 2022.
  5. The DOT has done a great job in the last two years of pushing the major carriers to adopt new passenger-friendly policies, such as family seating so young children can sit next to an adult companion at no additional charge. Other policies deal with the airlines’ commitments in cases of cancellations and delays under the airlines’ control. 

The DOT’s flightrights.gov dashboard clearly displays each airline’s policy on various issues. Further, once the airlines have made a promise like this to the DOT, it becomes part of their contract and, while they can change their policy, they can’t go back on it for tickets purchased while that policy was in effect. 

We know now from the law passed by Congress in May that the dashboards aren’t going away. They currently include airlines’ commitments for:

  • Rebooking and covering hotel and meal expenses when the airline is responsible for a canceled flight or one delayed by at least three hours.
  • Fee-free seating for a child traveling with a parent or other adult companion.
  • Policies for military members who change flights because of military orders.

Over time, more travelers will discover which airline offers what, thanks to the rights spelled out on these dashboards. The hope is that pressure from travelers pushes more airlines to adopt passenger-friendly practices – ones that everyone knows are just common sense.

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.