Air Travel Complaints Hit Highest Level In Seven Years

Plane in purple skyIf you find yourself consistently annoyed and disappointed by your flying experience, you’re not alone—more than 9,200 airline passengers lodged complaints with the U.S. Department of Transportation about airline service in the first 10 months of 2008, the second-highest level in seven years.

The record number of complaints probably reflects only a fraction of the total number of complaints industry-wide. The DOT estimates that for every complaint they receive, the airlines get 50, but unlike the government, airlines are not required to report their figures.

Last year U.S. Airways received the most complaints, but they seem to have improved their game and now low-budget carrier Spirit Airlines tops the list of least-favorite airlines.

Of the “big seven” U.S. carriers, Delta got the most complaints and Southwest the fewest.

Spirit Airlines, a small budget carrier, got three times as many complaints as Southwest, despite the fact that Southwest flies more passengers than any other airline. Other small carriers such as JetBlue and AirTran also got record numbers of complaints.

Passengers generally turn to the DOT if they feel the airline didn’t handle their complaint to their satisfaction. Airline industry consultant Mike Boyd says that airline customer service departments often have a misguided goal of simply getting an answer to the passenger quickly in order to “close the file.”

“Too often, stock response letters are used, and they often do not address the nature of the complaint,” Boyd said.

747 landingAirline industry representatives claim that they take complaints very seriously and do their best to resolve them. Spirit’s marketing manager even goes so far as the say that 99 percent of its passengers are satisfied.

The DOT lacks power to resolve problems in most cases, and usually just passes the complaint back to the airline. However, for some passengers just this action alone spurs the airline to finally resolve their issue where they may not have had a satisfactory outcome before.

Consumer advocates frustrated with the fact that the DOT’s complaint system is toothless have spurred the agency to propose new rules that would go further to protect fliers.

One rule would require airlines to acknowledge customer complaints within 30 days and to give a meaningful response within 60 days. Another rule would make it mandatory for airlines to post instructions about how to file a complaint on their Web site and on electronic tickets.

The new rules could go into effect as soon as this year. For many passengers, that’s not a moment too soon.

By Karen Elowitt for

Related links: USA Today, Air Travel Consumer Report, Filing an Airline Complaint

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