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).
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.
For instance, someone who wants to avoid being put in a situation where they might get bumped from a flight would find that flying on either Virgin America or JetBlue would virtually eliminate that possibility.
"There are some airlines where you're more likely to get bumped or you'll have a much higher chance of losing your luggage," he says. "The reputation each airline has is deserved."
Paul Hudson, president of the consumer advocacy group FlyersRights.org, says his group would like to see more pressure from the federal government on airlines to provide passengers with more support for excessive flight delays, overbooking, the amount of room provided for passengers and lost luggage.
"We're at a break-point here - a fork in the road," he says. "We've pretty much come to the end of the line with the philosophy of deregulation will solve all the problems. Clearly that has failed. People need to realize they are in a black hole when it comes to consumer rights with the airlines."
He urges consumers to contact their members of Congress to urge greater regulation and more consumer rights for airline passengers. Hudson also suggests that consumers take advantage of the tools available to them to help avoid some of the common problems.
He recommends the following:
* Check on the on-time statistic for a flight before booking (you can find the data on www.flightstats.com).
* 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.
(This story has been refiled to correct a typo of the word "overbooking" in the 17th paragraph.)
(Follow us @ReutersMoney or here. Editing by Linda Stern and Andre Grenon)