Number of passenger complaints continue to soar at these 3 airlines

Three of the most budget-friendly airlines in the U.S. generated the highest rate of passenger complaints, an analysis from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) finds.

Researchers at PIRG examined airline passenger complaint data released by the U.S. Department of Transportation last Friday to tally how many grievances submitted to the federal government last year were directed toward each major airline. Researchers also ranked the airlines based on the ratio of complaints each received per 100,000 passengers. 

Frontier Airlines topped the list for the highest complaint ratio, with 33 grievances for every 100,000 passengers. Spirit Airlines placed second with about 15 complaints, and JetBlue Airlines came in third with 13. Those three airlines also received the highest rates of complaints in PIRG’s 2022 analysis

Conversely, Alaska Airlines had the lowest complaint ratio last year with just 2 grievances filed per 100,000 passengers.

Surge in complaints in 2023 

U.S. travelers submitted nearly 97,000 complaints about airlines to the Transportation Department last year, up from roughly 86,000 total submissions, including complaints, inquiries and opinions in 2022. Passengers complained about everything from delays and cancellations to accommodations for disabled passengers and difficulties getting airfare refunds.

On a positive note, airlines canceled fewer flights and lost fewer bags of luggage in 2023, compared with figures from 2022, PIRG’s report shows.

“Airline travel is getting better overall,” Teresa Murray, PIRG’s consumer watchdog director and the report’s author, said in a statement Tuesday. “But there are still too many horror stories about passengers unexpectedly having to sit in a terminal for hours, getting lousy customer service or being treated like a seat number instead of a person going on a long-awaited vacation or important work trip.” 

JetBlue and Spirit did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday. In a statement to CBS MoneyWatch, a Frontier spokesperson said the company is already starting to decrease its complaint numbers.

“We have been disappointed in our historical complaints but are pleased to have seen a recent drop in complaints due to better operational reliability, the reopening of our call center, and the recent launch of the New Frontier which offers clear, upfront low-cost pricing, and no change fees,” the spokesperson said. 

Closer attention to complaints

To be sure, the Transportation Department has taken passenger complaints for decades, but according to Murray, federal lawmakers are paying much closer attention to the grievances these days. The evidence: a couple new airline industry rules the Biden administration enacted in recent months, Murray said.

Under one rule, airlines are mandated to promptly refund customers when flights are meaningfully disrupted or delayed. Airlines will have to refund customers the full ticket price, including airline-imposed fees, as well as government taxes and fees. The second rule requires airlines to disclose so-called junk fees upfront. 

Still, consumer grievances over airline service are not losing any steam, judging from the number of complaints filed so far this year. Passengers submitted 15,365 complaints in March, according to the Transportation Department’s most recent data, compared with 15,545 last year in March. 

Consumer frustrations, however, are not stopping them from flying, according to aviation industry experts. Indeed, a record 3 million passengers passed through TSA checkpoints Sunday, following the July 4th holiday.

Our research shows that travelers prioritize travel within their household budgets, meaning they’re willing to cut back in some other areas like shopping, dining out and out-of-home entertainment in order to fund their vacations,” Henry Harteveldt, an airlines industry analyst at Atmosphere Research, told CBS MoneyWatch. “This matters because against higher interest rates and the higher cost for everyday items, it would be understandable if we saw fewer people traveling. Instead, we saw a record number of people travel.”

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