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May 2012

Airlines Improve 2011 Performance

Readers of this column know of my frequent frustration about airline customer service as airlines continue to cut costs. However, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), airline service improved in 2011.

Consumer Complaints. First, the not-so-good news. Total numbers of airline complaints were up significantly in 2011. USDOT reports indicate it received 11,545 written complaints last year, up 5 percent from 2010’s total of 10,988. Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines scored the lowest complaint rates nationwide of the 16 major airlines, while United Airlines suffered the worst complaint rate. Delta and American Airlines also did relatively poorly as compared to other major airlines. The primary consumer complaints were flight cancellations, delays, and misconnections followed by mishandled baggage and denied boarding. Refund, fare, frequent flyer, discrimination, and disability complaints were significantly fewer in number. The 2011 complaint rates for United and American Airlines increased over 2010, while it is notable that Delta’s complaint rate improved somewhat.

Flight Arrival Times.  Overall, flights arrived on time just under 79.6 percent of the time with an improving trend line over the year. The most common flight delay reason is because the arriving aircraft is delayed. This is closely followed by heavy traffic volume or air carrier delays that are within the airline’s control (e.g. maintenance or crew problems). Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines were best among the major carriers in on-time arrivals, while JetBlue Airways and ExpressJet were at the bottom. Delta was also among the best while American was among the worst.

Flight Cancellations.  SkyWest suffered the most flight cancellations and JetBlue, Frontier, and Hawaiian had the fewest.

Mishandled Baggage. AirTran enjoyed the lowest level of mishandled baggage of the 16 major airlines, while American Eagle Airlines had the highest rate. Delta and Frontier were also in the better half, while United and Southwest Airlines were in the lower half. 2011 represented a significant year of improvement for Delta over 2010, when Delta’s rate of mishandled baggage was significantly higher.

Denied Boarding. Based on my recent flights, it seems like the airlines are over-booking more flights because I often hear the request that passengers volunteer to take a later flight for compensation. JetBlue Airlines had the lowest level of denied boarding; Delta and Southwest were not far behind. United, Continental, ExpressJet, American Eagle, and Mesa Airlines had the most denials. However, there was improvement shown from 2010 to 2011, with 577,510 passengers accepting voluntary flight re-scheduling in 2011 versus 681,105 passengers in 2010. Involuntary flight denial fell from 65,079 in 2010 to 48,128 in 2011.

Injuries to Animals. DOT also keeps track of airline reports of animal injuries while in transport. A total of 35 animals died in airline custody in 2011, while nine were injured and two were lost. Over half of the total deaths and injuries were on Delta Airlines alone.

Worst Airports for On-time Departures. Finally, DOT keeps statistics on airport departure delays. Tampa, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Reagan National rank among the best, while Newark, Houston, and Denver rank among the worst. Milwaukee also fared relatively well.

The airlines still have a long distance to go to achieve the service levels common in other industries, but the trend line is positive and this could mean many fewer hours or frustration for American consumers in 2012. 

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