Consumers’ gripes with airlines have skyrocketed
June 15, 2017
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  • Airline passengers’ patience may be running out.

    Complaints about airline service jumped by roughly 70% between March and April, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The department received 1,909 complaints in April, versus 1,132 filed the month prior. Reports of dissatisfaction with airline service increased by roughly the same amount on an annual basis, as well.

    The uptick in consumer complaints also came as the airline industry began to grapple with a host of high-profile embarrassments, including the violent removal of a 69-year-old doctor from a United Airlines UAL, -0.28%  flight in Chicago because the airline wanted his seat for one of its employees. “This would appear to be the Dr. Dao Effect,” Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, said in an email. “People realize they can complain to the Department of Transport, and more have decided to take this action.”

    Consumer advocate Christopher Elliott said in an email that the figures from Department of Transportation match his findings. “Overall discontent with the industry is on the rise,” he said. “Passengers are unhappy. Shareholders aren’t. As corporations, airlines are responsible to their shareholders.”

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    Meanwhile, airlines’ performance has gotten worse, at least where delays and cancellations are concerned. On-time arrival rates fell to 78.5% in April, down from roughly 80% in March and 84.5% a year earlier. And 1.6% of domestic flights were canceled in April — up from 0.9% the previous year, but down from 1.8% in March.

    Complaints also increased regarding the treatment of disabled passengers and discrimination. Things didn’t seem to get much better for passengers once they landed — the industry’s mishandled baggage rate in April was 2.53 reports per 1,000 passengers, up from both April 2016’s rate of 2.31 and March 2017’s rate of 2.24.

    April’s figures were the exception, not the rule, John Heimlich, vice president and chief economist at industry trade association Airlines for America, said. “April was indeed an aberration due to some lengthy and extensive winter storms,” he said. Bad weather affected flights from airports across the country, including major hubs in Chicago, Atlanta and Charlotte, he added.

    In recent years, airlines have improved their performance. A previous report from the U.S. Department of Transportation that showed flight cancellations, mishandled baggage, and bumping rates fell in 2016. According to Heimlich, 2016 was the best year since 1992 for cancellations and also had among the lowest levels of baggage mishandling and bumping from flights recorded. “The rate is so low to begin with, that small changes like a single flight-ful of passengers can swing things,” he said.

    Other reports predating recent airline fiascoes also indicate rising levels of air passengers’ satisfaction, but a recent study from travel website Airfarewatchdog.com found that 92% of travelers say traveling by air today “leaves a lot to be desired.”