Indignities continue, but airline complaints are down

Have commercial airline passengers simply become resigned to flight delays, cancelled flights, mishandled baggage and the other annoyances of modern air travel?

A report released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Transportation's aviation consumer protection division says airline customer complaints filed with the agency declined significantly in 2013, even though air carriers reported worse on-time performance and cancellation rates compared to a year earlier, especially this past December.

According to the report, consumer complaints for the 16 reporting air carriers – which included the national and regional carriers – were down 14.1 percent from 2012.

But it's not as though flying has become any easier. The airlines' on-time arrival rate for December was just 68.9 percent, down from 83.5 percent a month earlier and a drop of nearly 8 percent from the year-ago period.

Roughly 3 percent of scheduled domestic flights were cancelled in December, up nearly 2 percent from the previous month and up from the 1.6 percent cancellation rate a year ago

And then there's the issue of finding your luggage once your delayed flight finally arrives. The carriers posted a higher rate of mishandled baggage last year -- 3.22 per 1,000 passengers, compared to 2012’s rate of 3.09.

Part of the problem is the exceptionally cold and snowy weather much of the country has experienced this winter. The Transportation Department says that in December the airlines reported 10 delays of three hours or longer on domestic flights – and four tarmac delays of over four hours on international flights. Most of those delays involved incoming and outgoing flights at Chicago's O'Hare Airport on Dec. 8, during a major snowstorm.

Another issue is the ongoing cycle of airline mergers, along with concerns about how the shrinking number of airlines will affect both customer service and air prices. This past December, American Airlines announced its merger with US Airways. And while that deal won't be completed until next year, it will not only create the world's largest air carrier but also put four airlines – American, United, Delta and Southwest – in control of over 80 percent of the U.S. market.

The DOT says the airlines with the highest on-time arrival rates were Hawaiian Airlines at 92.4 percent, Virgin America at 85.6 percent and Alaska Airlines at 85.5 percent. At the bottom of the list, with the worse on-time arrival rates, were Southwest (57.7 percent), Frontier (60.2 percent) and American Eagle (60.5 percent).

And there was one good bit of news for all passengers: Reports of airlines involuntarily bumping passengers from flights declined slightly for the calendar year 2013.

In the meanwhile, frequent fliers like Eric Steen try to stay philosophical about the indignities they have to put up with on a regular basis.

“I just try to be patient,” he said. “If they can have all these jets land safely in America every day, then if they have a few delays and departures, it's OK with me.”

  • Bruce Kennedy

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