Airline complaints on the rise as travel begins to recover from pandemic

A passenger arrived for an American Airlines flight at O'Hare International Airport on Feb. 5 in Chicago.

Although the travel industry is slowly bouncing back as pandemic worries start to fade, the effects of the coronavirus on U.S. domestic air travel will have a lingering impact for years to come.

Airlines faced many challenges in 2020, forcing them to adapt to a “new normal,” though some were able to weather the storm better than others.

The No. 1 issue carriers faced in 2020 was a significant increase in customer complaints in the early months of the pandemic, with the most occurring in April and May, according to the annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR), a study of how major airlines in the U.S. performed over a one-year span.

Complaints rose by nearly 400% from 2019 to 2020, with almost 83% of complaints centered on issues with refunds for unused travel, compared to only 6% in 2019, researchers Dean Headley and Brent Bowen found.

“The airlines had a big challenge in working through refund issues presented by canceled travel plans, but most were able to respond and quell customer concerns in a timely manner,” Headley said.

Southwest ranked best among the other airlines in terms of complaints, with the lowest consumer complaint rate, at 2.64 per 100,000 passengers. Frontier, however, was ranked worst, with a rate of 49.30 per 100,000 passengers.

Overall, the entire airline industry saw a dramatic increase in complaints, jumping from 1.06 in 2019 to 11.75 per 100,000 passengers in 2020.

Other issues, including on-time performance, involuntary denied boardings and mishandled baggage, were not as heavily impacted by the pandemic.

“If you did travel by air in 2020, chances are good that you had good performance by the airline,” said Headley, emeritus associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University. “Better on-time performance, fewer mishandled bags and very few denied boardings were all to be expected with many fewer people flying in the system.”

An almost 60% reduction in passenger travel as a result of the pandemic played a significant role in the AQR results, allowing airlines to make improvements in key areas.

Enplaned passengers saw a dramatic loss in March 2020, which continued to decline throughout the rest of the year. The number of total domestic passengers in 2020 was less than 40% of the number of enplaned passengers in 2019.

Fewer passengers gave the airlines more time and flexibility to improve performance areas that used to be worse in previous years.

Southwest was the only airline to maintain an almost level score for 2020 compared to 2019. The nine others saw the opposite, with their scores worsening by 40% to as much as 800% from 2019.

Hawaiian Airlines ranked the best for on-time performance in 2020, with an arrival percentage of 88%. Allegiant was the worst in terms of on-time performance at just above 71%.

The airline industry’s overall on-time percentage in 2020 was almost 84% compared to 79% in 2019.

In addition, denied boardings also saw improvement. Frontier had the highest involuntary denied boardings rate at 0.24 per 10,000 passengers. Allegiant, Delta, Hawaiian and JetBlue had the lowest rate at 0 per 10,000 passengers.

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