When Andrew Schrage discovered that his seatback TV wasn’t working on his JetBlue flight from Chicago to Boston, he didn’t wait until he landed to complain to the airline. Schrage, an editor at the website MoneyCrashers.com, tweeted @JetBlue before the plane took off, and the airline responded—with a $50 voucher.
Twitter may be changing how we complain to the airlines, but there’s still a lot to complain about. According to the latest Department of Transportation (DOT) report, the agency received nearly 3,600 complaints about airlines from January to June, 2011.
That’s a lot of complaints, even if it is an improvement from the nearly 4,000 received over the same period last year. Not surprisingly, complaints about flight delays and cancellations, rude or incompetent service, and baggage handling led the list.
But what these stats don’t tell you is that legions of consumers are now voicing their complaints directly with the airlines via Twitter. And the airlines—or at least some of them—are listening, responding, and in some cases being proactive and fixing the issues.
Stephanie Dressler, a senior associate at Manhattan-based Montieth & Company, missed her Delta flight to Miami in August 2011 because of an exceptionally slow-moving check-in line at New York’s JFK. So she tweeted pictures of the line to her followers. By the time she arrived in Miami, Delta had apologized to her via Twitter, and on her way home she was upgraded to Delta priority—and coveted exit-row seats.
Clearly, it’s faster to broadcast a complaint in 140 characters or less than to call customer service or log a complaint with the DOT. But not all airlines are listening—some, like Skywest, have Twitter pages that are mere bookmarks. Others, like American Airlines, have eight rotating community managers on Twitter and receive 30,000 tweets per month, according to the airline’s social media communications director, Jonathan Pierce.
Of course, anyone can tweet anything; lodging an official complaint with the DOT means you have a serious gripe. Here are the U.S. airlines the DOT says have had the most—and least—complaints.
No. 16 Southwest Airlines
.33 complaints per 100,000 passengers
For an airline that moves nearly 10 million passengers per month, Southwest Airlines gets surprisingly few complaints, leading the pack and claiming the title of America's least-complained-about airline.
No. 15 Alaska Airlines
.49 complaints per 100,000 passengers
Alaska may have had only 42 complaints this year, but it's still more than last year. Tweet @AlaskaAir when something goes wrong, and chances are you’ll get a faster response than you would by calling, e-mailing, or dealing with customer service at the counter. Its modest following of less than 50,000 will likely grow fast this year.
No. 14 Mesa Airlines
.58 complaints per 100,000 passengers
This regional carrier for Delta, United, and US Airways had the fewest raw number of complaints over the first six months of this year: 25. That’s pretty remarkable, as is its consistency from last year, when they had 24 complaints over the same period of time.
No. 13 AirTran Airways
.63 complaints per 100,000 passengers
There’s no question that AirTran’s ranking has improved—it has cut its number of complaints in half. But social media has nothing to do with keeping its customers happy; its Twitter presence is nothing more than a placeholder.
No. 12 Frontier Airlines
.66 complaints per 100,000 passengers
Frontier has begun to be more interactive at @FlyFrontier with its social media–savvy fliers. Maybe that helped push its official complaint rate down from 1.23 over the first six months of 2010.
No. 11 Hawaiian Airlines
.73 complaints per 100,000 passengers
With just 31 complaints in the first six months of 2011, the Aloha State’s carrier has improved from the same period last year, when it had 39. And since they've carried more passengers in 2011, Hawaiian's complaint rate has dropped as well.
No. 10 Skywest Airlines
.77 complaints per 100,000 passengers
The largest independently owned regional airline boasts a low complaint rate even though it flew almost 12 million passengers over the first six months of 2011.
No. 9 Atlantic Southeast Airlines
.96 complaints per 100,000 passengers
Atlantic Southeast will merge with ExpressJet later this year. Ideally, the newly formed airline will have a Twitter presence, because this airline, which operates close to 1,000 flights every day in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean, does not.
No. 8 ExpressJet Airlines
1.01 complaints per 100,000 passengers
Express Jet has slipped from a rate of .70 last year, and its Twitter presence is an anemic placeholder. Let’s hope that when it merges with Atlantic Southeast later this year, a more dynamic social media presence will be part of the business plan.
No. 7 JetBlue Airways
1.07 complaints per 100,000 passengers
When JetBlue got on the Twitter bandwagon in the spring of 2007—one of the first big brands to jump in—its business plan was that it wanted to help customers. And according to the DOT, there are enough complaints to keep its customer-service folks busy.
No. 6 Delta Airlines
1.27 complaints per 100,000 passengers
Hands down, Delta holds the title of most improved. A year ago, it was ranked the worst airline for complaints in virtually every category. Now that the bumpy merger with Northwest has emerged from the turbulence, Delta has cut its complaint rate nearly in half.
No. 5 American Airlines
1.50 complaints per 100,000 passengers
American logged 636 complaints from January to June, 2011. With nearly a quarter of a million Twitter followers, though, the airline has upped its game to try and handle problems before they become complaints.
No. 4 American Eagle Airlines
1.67 complaints per 100,000 passengers
The country’s largest regional carrier reported the worst on-time rate and the highest flight cancellation rates, which certainly had a lot to do with its shocking jump from a respectable complaint rate of .87 over the same period in 2010 to a whopping 1.67 this year.
No. 3 Continental Airlines
1.70 complaints per 100,000 passengers
Flight problems and customer service issues are the bane of Continental, and its complaint rate edged up from 2010.
No. 2 US Airways
1.73 complaints per 100,000 passengers
Flight issues and customer service remain major problems for this carrier. It’s routinely at the top of the barrel when it comes to complaints, despite the fact that it carries less than half the passengers that Southwest does.
No. 1 United Airlines
2.01 complaints per 100,000 passengers
United didn’t fare well last year either—coming in at No. 2—but this year it grabs the title of worst airline for passenger complaints.
No. 1 (International): British Airways
Passengers were most annoyed about issues with baggage (22 complaints) and then refunds. The number is up from 61 complaints over the same period in 2010.
No. 2 (International): Lufthansa
About a third of complaints had to do with baggage problems. Overall Lufthansa received 15 more complaints than over the same period in 2010.
No. 3 (International): Air France
Air France also needs to work on its baggage handling—the biggest reason for complaint. The airline received a comparatively high number of complaints about its customer service and one for discrimination. Overall complaints fell slightly from 59 over the same period in 2010.
No. 4 (International): Emirates Airlines
Passengers griped most about baggage and customer service on Emirates, which drew seven more complaints than over the same period in 2010.
No. 5 (International): KLM
After baggage irritations, KLM passengers were most frustrated with issues related to reservations, ticketing and boarding. Complaints rose from a total of 26 over the same period in 2010.
No. 6 (International): Alitalia
Flight problems led to nearly as many complaints (six) as did baggage problems (seven). Overall, however, Alitalia’s satisfaction rate seems to be improving; complaints dropped dramatically since the 40 received over the same period in 2010.
No. 6 (International): Virgin Atlantic Airways
Refunds were the main bone of contention among Virgin’s customers, who seem more satisfied with the baggage treatment than customers on other international airlines. Complaints rose to 25 from 19 over the same period in 2010.
No. 8 (International): Aeromexico
Baggage and flight problems created the biggest headaches for passengers on Aeromexico. The airline’s number of complaints rose from 18 over the same period in 2010.
No. 9 (International): Turkish Airlines
Issues with reservations, ticketing, and boarding elicited the most complaints. It’s a notable change from the same period in 2010, when Turkish Airlines only received 10 complaints and primarily for baggage problems.
No. 10 (International): Air Canada
The processes of making reservations, ticketing, and boarding led to the most complaints, with baggage issues a close second. It’s a slight increase from 18 complaints over the same period in 2010.
No. 10 (International): Iberia Airlines
Iberia’s customers complained the most about baggage treatment. But the total number of complaints is down slightly from 22 over the same period in 2010.
No. 12 (International): Qatar Airways
Passengers complained the most about reservations, ticketing, and boarding issues with Qatar Airways. The airline registered two more complaints than over the same period in 2010.
No. 13 (International): Air India
Complaints about Air India were divided between baggage, high fares, and trouble with sales, including over-sales. Still, this number is down from 25 complaints over the same period in 2010.
No. 13 (International): TAM
Issues with purchasing tickets and boarding the plane pushed people to formally complain about TAM. Data from the previous year was not available.
No. 15 (International): Royal Air Maroc
People were most upset about general flight problems, with baggage being a close second. Data from the previous year was not available.
No. 16 (International): Volaris
Complications with reservations, flight boarding, and being able to get a refund are what got customers upset with Volaris. This number is slightly up from the 11 complaints over the same period in 2010.
No. 17 (International): Aer Lingus
The majority of complaints with Aer Lingus were about general problems while actually aboard the plane. They were consistent with the type of complaint and volume received over the same time period in 2010.
No. 17 (International): Avianca
Reserving tickets and boarding the plane is what got some customers upset with this airline. Data from the previous year was not available.
No. 17 (International): LAN Airlines
Baggage issues and problems while aboard the plane resulted in the most official complaints about LAN. This number is slightly up from the 10 complaints over the same period in 2010.
No. 20 (International): Aeroflot
Half of this airline’s complaints were about problems with baggage. Data from the previous year was not available.
No. 20 (International): Caribbean Airlines
Complaints with this airline were almost evenly distributed between issues while on-board and baggage problems. Data from the previous year was not available.
No. 20 (International): Jet Airways
Baggage problems were the biggest culprit for customers of Jet Airways. Data from the previous year was not available.
No. 20 (International): TACA
Most of the complaints with this airline also had to do with baggage problems. But this number is down from 12 over the same period in 2010.
No. 20 (International): Royal Jordanian Airlines
Complaints for this airline were almost evenly distributed between over-booked flights, baggage, and poor customer service. Data from the previous year was not available.