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Everyone Is Complaining About These Airlines

The Department of Transportation released its latest monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, which includes information on airline-related consumer complaints for the full 2013 calendar year. The good news, according to the report: Complaints during 2013 were down 14.1 percent from the previous year.

That statistical improvement shouldn't be taken too seriously. It's simply based on the number of complaints travelers have taken the time and trouble to bring to the DOT's attention, and is at best an imprecise gauge of the level of consumer dissatisfaction with the airlines.

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More meaningful than the year-over-year numbers is the ranking of the airlines, showing which received more complaints, and which fewer. To compensate for the differences among the carriers' passenger numbers, the DOT's ranking is based on the number of complaints per 100,000 enplanements.

From best (fewest complaints per 100,000 enplanements) to worst, U.S. airlines' 2013 performance was as follows:

  1. Southwest - 0.34
  2. Alaska Air - 0.44
  3. Delta - 0.59
  4. JetBlue - 0.63
  5. AirTran - 0.73
  6. Skywest - 0.80
  7. Mesa - 0.85
  8. Endeavor - 0.86
  9. ExpressJet - 0.96
  10. Hawaiian - 1.06
  11. Virgin America - 1.28
  12. US Airways - 1.42
  13. American Eagle - 1.70
  14. American - 1.99
  15. United - 2.14
  16. Frontier - 3.09

It's not surprising that Southwest is top-ranked, with the lowest level of complaints. The airline has consistently succeeded by keeping consumers' expectations low, and then exceeding those expectations.

At the other end of the spectrum, worst-ranked Frontier is in the process of shifting to an ultra-low-cost business model, a la Spirit (which, unfortunately, is not included in the report). The high level of complaints likely reflects customers' distaste for the airline's new approach.

What is surprising is the disparity among the legacy airlines, with Delta in the top three, and American and United in the bottom three. Is Delta really that much better than American and United, or is this another case of an airline exceeding customers' low expectations?

Reader Reality Check

Is the DOT's ranking consistent with your experience?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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