Not First Class

Flyer complaints soar as airlines cancel flights, deny refunds, ruin plans

Kristin Horowitz and her family ended a two-week vacation along the East Coast in August and were scheduled to fly home to California on United Airlines on Aug. 11. The flight was canceled at the last minute. That began a two-day ordeal of more canceled flights, hours upon hours on hold with United, conflicting instructions from United and worry about their two dogs in a kennel back home. Horowitz, a small business owner in San Luis Obispo, along the coast in the middle of California, said she incurred $858.28 in expenses for two extra days’ worth of hotels, meals, a rental car and boarding for their dogs.

After spending hours trying to get the reimbursement she said she was promised by United, and then filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), she got a $500 check from United. She also successfully disputed two of the airline tickets with her credit card.

It’s been nearly four months. Horowitz is still seething with anger, not just about what happened but about how she said she was treated. “I felt absolutely helpless,” she said. 

Horowitz is one of 34,011 people who was upset enough about an airline to file a formal complaint with the DOT in 2021 through August of this year. 

After COVID-19 wreaked havoc on air travel in 2020, the airline industry may be getting worse for customers. Sporadic mass cancellations by airlines may appear to be the new norm. In November, American Airlines, the nation’s largest carrier, canceled more than 2,000 flights over a period of several days. The month before, it was Southwest, the second largest, canceling more than 2,000 flights one weekend. This summer, Spirit Airlines infamously canceled nearly 3,000 flights during an 11-day stretch. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of consumers are still trying to get $10 billion in refunds for flights canceled last year. 

The pandemic was the catalyst for much of the change in the airline industry that consumers find themselves dealing with now. 

The government acted fast last year to save the industry by giving airlines $50 billion in taxpayer money. The first $25 billion grant was supposed to save 75,000 jobs; if that happened, each job cost $300,000 to save. The money kept the airlines from filing for bankruptcy and ended up protecting the shareholders’ investments. From April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021, U.S. passenger airlines lost $34 billion, according to the Bureau of Transportation statistics. They turned a profit of $1 billion in the second quarter of this year. The four largest airlines all posted profits in the third quarter of this year.

Obviously, consumers and the economy need the airlines to exist, but it’s unclear how that money was used to help consumers. In theory, part of that money could have been used to refund flights that weren’t taken due to the pandemic or invested in the operations side of the airline industry to help it run better this year. If the taxpayer money had been invested adequately, complaint volume wouldn’t be so high and flights would be more punctual. 

The DOT’s Office of Aviation releases monthly Air Travel Consumer Reports that contain data on complaints against airlines, and data about flights departing and arriving on time. U.S. PIRG Education Fund looked at the state of the airline industry now, compared with periods going back to the beginning of 2016. We reviewed data surrounding more than 200,000 complaints against the airlines and the data for flight departures and arrivals starting in January 2016. This should help consumers to have as much information as possible into account when deciding where to fly and through which airline.

Complaints soared in 2020

Anyone can file a consumer complaint with the Department of Transportation (DOT) online for domestic flights as well as any international flight that departs from or arrives in the United States. During the time reviewed prior to the pandemic, consumers generally filed 1,000 to 2,000 complaints every month. 

That changed dramatically in March 2020 when the pandemic hit. By May 2020, complaints peaked at nearly 22,000, with nearly 21,000 of them about consumers not getting refunded for their flights.

More than a year later, 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.

The $50 billion of taxpayer money was supposed to make sure that airlines had enough money to pay workers. Instead, airlines offered early retirement packages and buyouts to reduce how many workers they had on payroll. According to the government’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, passenger airlines in the United States employed 407,965 full-time equivalents in August 2021, the most recent month available.

That’s down 40,295 FTEs, or 10.8%, from when the pandemic hit in March 2020. The August employment number is also down 9.2% from August 2019, the most recent corresponding pre-pandemic month. Further, August 2021 had the lowest FTE total of any August since 2015.

Which airlines have the most complaints

Not all airlines dealt with consumer problems equally well. During the height of complaints from March through June of 2020:

  • Frontier, United and Hawaiian had the most complaints per 100,000 people boarded.

  • Both United and Hawaiian hit more than 1,000 complaints per 100,000 people boarded (or 1% of all passengers) in April 2020.

  • Frontier reached more than 2,000 complaints per 100,000 people boarded in April 2020 (or 2% of all passengers).

  • On the other hand, Southwest, Delta and American each kept the complaints below 200 per 100,000 people boarded (or 0.2% of all passengers).

Since last year's spike, the story changes a little regarding which airlines seem to have dealt with issues the best. 

  • Those with the lowest rate of complaints consistently: Southwest and Delta. Southwest has been especially noteworthy as the only airline in 2021 to have any month with fewer than one complaint per 100,000 boardings, and it had three such months. 

  • Those with the worst rate of complaints: Frontier, United and JetBlue. Frontier averaged 15.68 complaints per 100,000 boardings. 

  • Hawaiian became one of the better airlines in this respect just recently by having fewer than three complaints per 100,000 boardings every month since June 2021.

  • Spirit had the most complaints per 100,000 boardings at 75.09 in August, most likely because of the cancellations the airline had to begin the month.

In 2021 through August, the types of complaints reported most often were the same every month, although the ranking after "refunds" sometimes shuffled slightly:

  • Refunds

  • Flight problems (cancelations, delays, missed connection).

  • Reservations / ticketing / boarding

  • Fares

  • Baggage

  • Customer service

  • Disability

Failing to arrive on time

The basic job of every airline is to get its passengers and their belongings to a place safely and on time. Allegiant and JetBlue trail the rest of the pack as two of the worst airlines on punctuality. 

Allegiant emerged as the worst during the initial pandemic spike by having a measly 10.4 percent of all flights arriving on time in April 2020 and continues to be one of the least punctual airlines since.

On the other hand, Delta, Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines have been three of the most punctual airlines since June 2020 with the one outlier being Hawaiian Airlines in October of 2020.

When the pandemic hit, the airlines became more punctual with fewer flights. Some were more punctual during June and July of 2020 than during any other time in the period we reviewed, going back to January 2016. 

Since July 2020, most of the airlines have dropped off again:

  • Allegiant and JetBlue continue to struggle to be punctual. Allegiant had only 51.9% of its flights arrive on time in July 2021.

  • Delta, Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines have stayed punctual (besides Hawaiian in October 2020), with Delta and Hawaiian airlines being the only two airlines to average more than 90% of their flights arriving on time since June 2020.

  • The rest of the airlines have similarly so-so track records. And since May, performance has fallen significantly, with seven of the 10 airlines having on-time records of less than 75% for June, July and August. 

The same airlines consistently are the worst at arriving on time. They know this, and they need to improve at arriving when they say they will. This can affect connecting flights or tight schedules that people may have. Consumers should take into consideration whether or not airlines will get them to their destinations as paid for. 

Late arrivals seem to also be increasing again, and that will be something to keep an eye on. This could lead to a steady but long drop in flights arriving on time, or airlines may be returning to the on-time arrival rates of before March 2020 which averaged at 80.0%.

Conclusion and recommendations

The government gave $50 billion in taxpayer dollars to the airline industry, but it’s unclear from the statistics that it helped consumers. The airlines are understaffed and consumers complain more than in 2019. That does not even take into account the avalanche of recent flight cancellations after August 2021.

  • Consumers should consider how many complaints an airline has and how punctual airlines are before choosing which airline to fly on.

  • When given options of layovers in different cities, consumers should look at how reliably the two airports get passengers out on time.

  • Outside of the airlines, consumers should voice their concerns to government officials. For the airports, call the city department in charge of the airport, and call the Department of Transportation at (202) 366-4000 to voice your concerns about the airlines. And ask where people go to file a formal complaint.

  • Cities should improve airports’ efficiency. Possible strategies: putting in place predictive tools and creating a good working environment where staff aren’t overworked and are incentivized to hit metrics that improve efficiency. 

  • Airlines should be better by issuing refunds to customers, being more punctual and taking better care of their customers. But airports don’t have an incentive for that. The government has not pushed back against the airlines adequately enough to lead to any improvements. The airlines continue to make money off of substandard treatment of their customers.

  • The Department of Transportation should act by cracking down on the airlines to improve how they interact with their customers and refund people for the flights they could not have taken due to the pandemic.

  • Congress can approve any number of solutions for the airline industry. That can range from breaking up major airlines to create more competition, to simply requiring refunds for canceled flights.

  • Consumers should realize that successful flying -- without unnecessary stress -- requires a different strategy. Consider this advice in our tips guide.

 

Top photo: Sharkshock via Shutterstock.com

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