Flight Gripe: Americans Reporting More Airline Complaints


The US Department of Transportation (DOT) issued its Air Travel Consumer Report for the month of March 2012 and much-beleaguered United Airlines fell to the bottom of the list of major carriers for on-time arrivals (beating out only Mesa and Virgin America) at airports reporting data to the DOT. It was also third (distantly behind ExpressJet and close behind SkyWest) for regularly scheduled flights arriving late 70% of the time or more. It was first among major carriers for mishandled baggage complaints reported, and was a clear frontrunner in other passenger complaint categories.

But United wasn’t the only offender, coming in at the middle of the pack or lower for tarmac delays and percentage of flight cancellations among reported flights. In total, 759 complaints were reported by 24 airlines (including separate entries for United Airlines and United Express and an entry for "Other US Airlines) in the month of March across all US airlines who report to the DOT, up from 655 one year ago. For the first quarter, complaints among US airlines were counted at 2,014, while they were reported at 1,893 for the same quarter last year. (Interestingly, foreign airlines came in at a cool 121 for March.) The next highest category of industries reporting complaints in March was tour operators with 213.

It takes no stretch of the imagination to recognize the complaints listed in the DOT report. They’re the same gripes we all have with flying—the big ones in March being flight delays and cancellations; problems with reservations, ticketing, and boarding; lost or damaged baggage, fees, and carryon problems; poor customer service; and problems with refunds.

The question is this: with complaints in the first quarter up from the same time last year, is service quality going down or are struggling Americans who sacrifice more to fly in this economy demanding more for their money?

As Americans are getting more vocal with their flight gripes, broadcast media is responding the best way it knows how—reality television.

The Learning Channel, aka TLC, is set to premier its reality series, "On the Fly" on May 24th. The series will chronicle the trials and tribulations (and a few triumphs) of passengers and employees on Southwest Airlines, sharing customer experience as well as a "behind-the-scenes" view into the world of airport operations.

In one clip on TLC’s site, entitled "Problems in Baltimore," expletives fly and tensions mount as flight delays and missed connections cause a general (if heavily edited) melee. "In an airport you have no control," a Southwest employee explains, looking as harried as the passengers around her. Interestingly, initial clips appear not to vilify the airlines, but rather paint a picture of a broken system in which customer and employee suffer side by side.

To be fair, airlines have made a point to enhance the customer experience this year. Note Delta’s upgrade to in-flight WiFi on some shuttle flights and Virgin Atlantic’s introduction of wireless phone service between New York and London. The process of consumer flying, however, is complex and convoluted, and it’s unclear when this list of airline foibles, from the irritating to the enraging, will ever shorten.

What are your top airline complaints? Share with your fellow travelers in the comments below.

Photo credit: Passengers at check-in via Shutterstock