Most-Complained-About Airlines 2010
Have an airline gripe? Who doesn’t? Here are the U.S. airlines with the most complaints—and how you can make your voice heard, too.
Sometimes air travel goes horribly wrong. Take the Continental-operated ExpressJet Flight 2816. On August 7, 2009, bad weather diverted the Houston-to-Minneapolis flight to Rochester, MN, where the tiny commuter plane sat packed with 47 passengers from midnight to 6:30 a.m. No one was allowed off, and passengers were offered only one drink. When the door was finally opened, they ran to the counter to complain.
While this was an extreme example of flights gone bad, we’ve all had problems while flying. The airline lost my bag! That gate agent was so rude! I missed my connection! Sometimes we can brush it off as an unfortunate consequence of air-travel convenience. But other times we just can’t let it go. Fortunately, plenty of outlets exist for expressing our frustrations and rectifying problems.
The airline itself is the place to start. After all, it’s the one with the power to refund your money or issue credit, which can go a long way toward assuaging anger.
A disappointing response from an airline, however, can leave you feeling powerless. But Uncle Sam is on your side: since the mid ’80s, the Department of Transportation has held U.S.-based airlines responsible for customer-service issues. The first step is to file a complaint with the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division.
The ACPE categorizes complaints by type—from oversales and fare misinformation to rude customer service and false advertising—and an analyst investigates each one. Not surprisingly, most passenger issues involve flight problems like cancellations or delays. These aren’t always the airline’s fault, of course. And passengers understand: the DOT says that complaints stemming from these incidents usually have more to do with the airline’s handling of the situation.
Serious issues are sent to the airlines for a resolution, but all problems—no matter how large or small—are tallied in a monthly public report of complaints per 100,000 “enplanements” (one passenger boarding one flight). And that must cause the airlines some degree of embarrassment, right?
Still, while a push from the DOT may help your case, this forum doesn’t let you voice your anger to the world. To help with that, upset passengers can tweet, start a Facebook group, or register complaints on websites. In fact, it was a bad airline experience that led Barcelona-based entrepreneur Andres Kello to start his own site: AirlineComplaints.org, which has almost 3,100 members. American Airlines receives the bulk of the site’s complaints, says Kello, but “complaints about Delta tend to be the most negative.”
So what airline is doing it right? On the DOT’s official report (on which we relied for our list), that would be Southwest—the perennial consumer favorite that registered the lowest number of complaints the past three years running. The airline’s fans continually remark on the friendly customer service, which Kello agrees can defuse a stressful trip. “Smiles,” he says, “don’t cost airlines a penny.”
No. 19: Southwest Airlines
.21 complaints per 100,000 passengers
More than 100 million passengers flew Southwest last year, which makes its amazingly low number of complaints to the DOT that much more surprising. To put it in perspective, Southwest gets only a single complaint per 500,000 passengers. The Southwest staff’s famously sunny disposition may have a lot to with the airline’s No. 1 ranking three years in a row.
No. 18: ExpressJet Airlines
.33 complaints per 100,000 passengers
Ironically, it was a Continental flight operated by ExpressJet that made headlines in 2009 for keeping its passengers on the tarmac for six hours with overflowing bathroom facilities and no drinking water. (The incident helped lawmakers push for more regulation of treatment of passengers during flight delays.) But that incident, it seems, was an anomaly: ExpressJet’s overall performance gets a gold star.
No. 17: SkyWest Airlines
.49 complaints per 100,000 passengers
Regional jet operator SkyWest, Inc. lost its hold on the No. 18 spot last year as more passengers lodged complaints about flight issues and baggage. Nevertheless, its ranking slipped only one spot.
No. 16: Alaska Airlines
.5 complaints per 100,000 passengers
A recent J. D. Powers survey awarded Alaska Airlines the top spot in customer satisfaction out of eight major U.S. carriers, and Alaska beat them all on this list as well.
No. 15: Mesa Airlines
.61 complaints per 100,000 passengers
This regional provider for Delta, United, and US Airways saw its rate of complaints drop from 2008, and its performance continues to improve year over year.
No. 14: AmericanEagle Airlines
.64 complaints per 100,000 passengers
An affiliate of American Airlines, the country’s largest regional carrier showed a dramatic 62 percent decrease in complaints to the DOT. Its service was so improved that the airline jumped from one of America’s worst offenders in 2008 to one of the country’s best.
No. 13: Atlantic Southeast Airlines
.65 complaints per 100,000 passengers
Atlantic Southeast operates nearly 1,000 daily flights in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean, and while its ranking puts it in the middle of the pack, this year it dropped out of the top 10 worst complaint-gatherers.
No. 12: Hawaiian Airlines
.74 complaints per 100,000 passengers
Hawaiian has built a reputation for stellar punctuality, but its overall satisfaction ranking is just average. Its customers have had problems in three categories: baggage, accommodating disabilities, and fares, which the DOT describes as “incorrect or incomplete information about fares, discount fare conditions and availability, overcharges, fare increases and level of fares in general.”
No. 11: Pinnacle Airlines
.79 complaints per 100,000 passengers
Another consistently on-time airline—No. 2 in 2009—Pinnacle, which operates more than 700 daily Delta Connection flights, doesn’t win any awards when it comes to the number of complaints. Yet it still managed to improve one spot in the rankings from 2008.
No. 10: JetBlue Airways
.85 complaints per 100,000 passengers
The most recent J. D. Powers survey awarded JetBlue the highest rating of overall customer satisfaction for low-cost carriers. True, the DOT’s stats don’t back that up, but JetBlue is still one of the country’s 10 least-complained-about airlines.
No. 9: Frontier Airlines
.92 complaints per 100,000 passengers
In 2008, the sister carrier to Midwest Airlines was one of America’s least-complained-about airlines, according to the DOT. But Frontier stumbled this past year, moving into the most-complained-about category for the first time in three years.
No. 8: AirTran
.97 complaints per 100,000 passengers
AirTran has maintained its dubious No. 8 ranking two years in a row, although it received fewer service complaints in 2009. Flight cancellations and delays were its major problems, about which a DOT official says, “Often low-cost carriers will not rearrange flights on another airline because they don’t have a full-service contract of carriage.”
No. 7: Continental Airlines
1.00 complaints per 100,000 passengers
In the past year, Continental improved enough to move up one spot in the ratings. But be warned: when it combines with United to create the world’s largest airline, the logistics of integration could cause some problems.
No. 6: Comair
1.03 complaints per 100,000 passengers
The smallest airline on the list improved one spot, but let’s face it: No. 6 is still pretty bad. The large majority of the service complaints were about flight problems. To make matters worse, Comair had the worst on-time performance of any U.S. airline in 2009.
No. 5: American Airlines
1.07 complaints per 100,000 passengers
Only Southwest carries more passengers, but that airline’s low complaint rate shows that size shouldn’t matter. Still, American’s year-over-year score has improved, perhaps with the support of what an airline spokesperson calls “a proactive customer outreach program should something unique occur with a specific flight.”
No. 4: Northwest Airlines
1.21 complaints per 100,000 passengers
Northwest had a spectacular fall from grace in 2009, dropping a full eight spots to its unfortunate current ranking. What happened? The Delta merger—involving an admittedly complicated integration of ticketing and gates—was the likely culprit.
No. 3: US Airways
1.31 complaints per 100,000 passengers
Here’s the good news: in 2008, US Airways came in dead last for service with a rate of 2.01 complaints (and a whopping 3.16 in ’07), so clearly the airline has focused on improving its score. But alas, here’s the bad news: mistakes made with reservations, ticketing, and boarding remain the airline’s Achilles’ heel.
No. 2: United Airlines
1.34 complaints per 100,000 passengers
The skies aren’t so friendly to passengers when it comes to mishandled luggage or flight cancellations and delays. True, the airline’s record is improving—the complaint rate in 2008 was 1.86—but its planned merger with Continental may cause more snafus, at least in the short term.
No. 1: Delta
1.96 per 100,000 passengers
Delta dropped the ball this past year. One DOT official attributes the airline’s most-complained-about status to its merger with Northwest. Regardless, Delta has some work to do: it was the worst offender in nearly all categories, especially flight problems, reservations, and baggage. The airline’s response? Complaints are handled, said a spokesperson, “on a case-by-case basis in the order they are received.”