Was air travel 70 percent worse in April of this year than it was during April 2016?
If you were to judge solely by the latest Bureau of Transportation Statistics report, published this week, it was. Consumer complaints filed with the Department of Transportation spiked from 1,123 last April to 1,909 this April. Those numbers include alleged mishandling by airlines, travel agents, and tour operators.
Complaints leveled specifically against U.S. airlines were up 64 percent year-over-year, from 870 to 1,430. The most complaints were logged against American (324 for the month), followed by Delta (297), and United (265). Those are absolute numbers, at least in part reflecting the size of the carriers.
In relative terms, Spirit was the most-complained-about carrier, with 7.2 complaints per 100,000 emplanements. United was second-worst, with 3.0 complaints per 100,000. And Southwest, which is among the largest U.S. carriers, was the best, with just 0.50 complaints per 100,000 emplanements.
But let’s get back to the year-over-year (and month-over-month) spike in complaints. What’s with that?
There’s no question that the recent spate of high-profile airline misdeeds played a part in increasing the complaint numbers, raising flyers’ awareness and stoking their tempers. United’s widely publicized forcible ejection of a paying passenger on flight UA3411, and the airline’s subsequent self-defeating series of public statements and sort-of-apologies, was just one of several incidents that cast the airline industry in a starkly unflattering light. Complaints? Damn right I have complaints!
What’s up for discussion is whether the complaint surge is indicative of a long-term downward trend in customer satisfaction, or whether the numbers will settle back into a more favorable range once the recent nasty events are no longer top-of-mind. Only time will tell.
Looking at the DOT’s complaint data is also a reminder of their report’s limitations. Most travelers are unaware that the DOT collects complaints for their monthly reports and instead direct their complaint correspondence direct to the airlines — which, after all, caused the problem in the first place, and are in a position to offer relief. So the real complaint-data trove is in the hands of the airlines, which understandably decline to publish it.
That leads to a modest proposal: The DOT should require the airlines to publish their complaint stats. The airline data could be viewed either separately or in conjunction with the DOT’s. Either way, it would provide a more complete picture of how airlines are meeting, or not meeting, the expectations of the traveling public.
Reader Reality Check
How is your satisfaction with the airlines trending, upward or downward?
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After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.