REFILE-U.S. airline complaints take off; can flyers fight back?

Tue Apr 9, 2013 10:41am EDT

By Mitch Lipka
    April 8 (REUTERS) - Consumer complaints against U.S.
airlines rose sharply in 2012, even as the carriers claimed a
better record of on-time arrivals and luggage handling.
    Those disparate findings, from a report released on Monday, 
highlight the continuing tug of war between an industry
struggling to find ways to make money and a traveling public
often unhappy with those choices.
    The Airline Quality Rating Report, produced by professors at
Purdue and Wichita State Universities, found that even though
airlines lost bags or arrived late less frequently, complaints
from consumers rose by more than 20 percent from 2011.
    Of 11,445 complaints lodged with the U.S. Department of
Transportation against airlines flying domestically, about 62
percent were in the following categories: flight problems,
reservation, ticketing and boarding problems, or customer
service problems.
    The report noted big increases in complaints about
reservations, ticketing and boarding - up about 58 percent in
2012 to 1,668 complaints from 1,058 - and customer service,
where complaints rose some 44 percent to 1,634 from 1,132. 
    At the same time, 81.8 percent of flights were on time in
2012 compared with 80 percent in 2011 and mishandled bag
complaints declined to 3.07 incidents per 1,000 passengers in
2012 from 3.35 in 2011.
    An airline analyst says it makes sense that people are going
to be unhappy with the airlines today.
    "As the industry continues to consolidate, capacity is
rationalized and reduced, seats are packed closer and closer
together and load factors get higher and higher. The travel
experience becomes punishing," says Robert Mann of R.W. Mann &
Company, an airline industry analysis and consulting company.
"Add fees for services previously considered part of the bargain
and you have the recipe for discontent."
    The study highlighted the growing incidences of "bumping,"
when a passenger shows up at the airport and finds out his seat
has been sold to someone else. The number of flyers subject to
"involuntary denied boarding," rose about 17 percent to nearly
one in every 10,000. Passengers are bumped when a flight is over
booked and the airline has to move them to a different flight.
The report is based on data collected by the DOT.
    Virgin America, included in the survey for the first time,
received the highest quality ranking, followed by JetBlue
Airways Corp and AirTran Airways. At the
bottom of the 14-airline survey was United Airlines,
where the rate of customer complaints almost doubled to 4.24 per
100,000 in 2012 from 2.21 per 100,000 passengers in 2011.
    A United spokesman defended the airline.
    "United's operations improved significantly in the fall of
2012 and we continue to meet or exceed our on-time standards and
set new records for performance," spokesman Charles Hobart says.
"Customer satisfaction is up, complaints are down dramatically
and we are improving our customers' experience ..."
    The other airlines included in the survey, in order of their
rankings, were Delta Air Lines Inc (4), Hawaiian
Airlines (5), Alaska Airlines Inc (6), Frontier Airlines
(7), Southwest Airlines Co (8), US Airways Inc
 (9), American Airlines Inc (10), American
Eagle (11), SkyWest Airlines (12)and ExpressJet (13). 
    
    BUMP-FREE AIRLINES
    The airlines clearly function differently, something
National Geographic Traveler ombudsman Christopher Elliott says
gives consumers some choices. The Airline Quality Ratings and
the U.S. DOT's Air Travel Consumer Report provide the data for
any traveler who wants to drill down to see where there might be
trouble spots.
 
    * Travel without checking bags to keep down fees and keep
your property with you. Even if you check bags, make sure you
keep essential medicines with you on the plane.
    * Look at weather reports for potential delays both the day
you fly and the day before. 
    * Compensate for the typical lack of food available on-board
by planning meals prior to traveling. 
    * Know the airline's policy on cancellations and changing
flights prior to booking. 
    * Use the major travel sites to compare air fares and
schedules.

    Sometimes, fares themselves can seduce a consumer into
booking a flight. That can often translate into the most
uncomfortable of all trips, Elliott says, and might not be the
right choice.
A couple walks along the rough surf during sunset at Oahu's North Shore, December 26, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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