The number of airline complaints took off in 2020. Here’s what it means.
The number of airline complaints soared to a new record in 2020. The figures, which the U.S. Department of Transportation released last week, hardly come as a surprise, considering the number of flights canceled during the pandemic.
But a closer look at the complaints reveals a few unexpected facts about flying. Air travelers filed 102,550 grievances last year, a 568% increase from the previous year. That may not sound like much, but only 1% to 2% of overall airline complaints are sent to the government, according to aviation insiders. That means there were roughly 10 million consumer complaints about airline service in 2020.
Total consumer complaints 1974-2020. Source: DOT.
Here’s what the numbers suggest:
We’ve known that the complaint numbers were bad for months. But we had no idea it would be this bad.
Industry-watchers would like to paint 2020 in simplistic terms. Airlines canceled their flights and then dragged their feet on refunds or tried to foist a credit on passengers when a refund was actually due. But that’s not what happened, at least not exclusively.
Take a closer look at the numbers, and you’ll see several troubling trends. If you want to follow along, you can go to page 64 of the report.
Complaint categories for 2020.
Yes, refunds accounted for the bulk of airline complaints in 2020. Here’s why: The airlines canceled many of their flights and issued refunds en masse. Air carriers delayed some of those refunds by weeks or months.
Many travelers also canceled their flights after the outbreak, hoping to get a refund. They did not. Under airline rules, you can only get a refund if the airline cancels; if you cancel, all you get is a credit.
But there’s more. Problems with reservations, ticketing and boarding more than doubled. Complaints about fares nearly tripled.
Unsurprisingly, grievances about things like delays and missed connections (classified as “flight problems”) fell dramatically. Of course — almost no one was flying in 2020.
What does that mean? People were complaining about airlines overall, and not just about refunds. The airline industry dropped the ball in a big way last year.
This was a customer service failure of epic and historic proportions.
Although domestic airlines — particularly the legacy carriers such as American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines — got most of the media attention in 2020, they weren’t the worst offenders.
Check out page 72 of the report for a breakdown of the worst domestic airlines’ complaints per 100,000 “enplanements” (passenger boardings).
Consumer complaints filed with the Department of Transportation.
That’s right, little Frontier Airlines is pushing the limits of consumer complaints with nearly 50 complaints per 100,000 boardings. That’s an eye-popping 5,523 complaints. Hawaiian, at number two, was a victim of a strict Hawaiian quarantine rule. And then there’s United Airlines, with the most complaints of any U.S. carrier — 11,274.
And don’t forget, if the DOT is getting just one percent of the complaints, you have to add a couple of zeros to get the actual number of grievances. It makes you want to file a complaint about United Airlines right now, doesn’t it? (Me too, and I don’t even have a ticket on United.)
One more thing. As I told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the complaints tell a story of who has been good — and who hasn’t — during the pandemic. Among them are several international airlines that refused to offer prompt refunds. They include:
My consumer advocacy organization has received a ton of complaints about Air Canada and TAP in the last year. Both wanted to offer credits for flights they canceled during the pandemic. Under U.S. law, they were obligated to offer a full refund.
As I noted in last week’s issue of my Substack newsletter, Elliott Confidential, there’s another wave of airline consumer complaints on the horizon.
Airlines are holding tens of billions of dollars in soon-to-expire ticket credits. Consumer advocates are pushing for new rules that would force airlines to issue quick refunds during any future disaster.
Many travelers are reluctant to fly this year, either for health or financial reasons. That doesn’t change the fact that their flight credits are about to expire. Once that happens, the money is gone.
If you have a flight credit, please check it now to make sure it’s not about to expire. If it is, ask for an extension. Most airlines are granting them, but you have to request one.
Airlines shouldn’t be allowed to keep your money. But at the rate things are going, most ticket credits will not be used before the end of this year. So, while 2020 will likely be a record for airline complaints, it looks like 2021 will remain high.
Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s