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Complaints grow from fed-up fliers

Cancellations, delays top the list

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / January 25, 2011

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With airlines filling planes to capacity and canceled flights on the rise, passengers increasingly are expressing their dissatisfaction to federal authorities.

Passengers filed 30 percent more complaints with the Department of Transportation through November of last year than they did during the same period in 2009. Gripes about cancellations, delays, and missed connections topped the list, while lost and damaged bags and poor customer service also were major concerns.

Through November, there were 1.22 complaints per 100,000 passenger boardings among the 18 largest US airlines, up from 0.97 over the same period in 2009 — although still below the high (nearly three complaints per 100,000 boardings) set in 2000.

The recent increase came even though the number of overall boardings rose only slightly. The rate, which comes as some carriers are beefing up customer service efforts, may grow even more once the transportation department factors in complaints received during the East Coast snowstorm after Christmas that left thousands of planes grounded and some passengers stranded for days.

“Nobody I know enjoys flying anymore,’’ said Ilene Greenberg of Chestnut Hill, who paid $3,400 to get her son home from Paris after his original flight was canceled due to heavy snows in Europe in December.

Canceled flights, always a major source of irritation, increased 22 percent last year over 2009, according to FlightStats.com, in part due to snowstorms and the massive disruptions from the Icelandic volcano last spring. And now that airlines are filling their planes as full as possible, the ripple effect is even greater.

“We’re seeing load factors the highest we’ve seen them,’’ said airline analyst Darryl Jenkins. “If you have a 90 percent load factor and you cancel a flight and the next flight is 90 percent full, it’s going to take you an additional 10 flights to accommodate the passengers on that one canceled flight.’’

Higher prices also upset passengers. With last year’s fares 9 percent above what they were in 2009, according to the travel website Hotwire.com, and fees for bags, food, extra leg room, and pillows boosting the price even higher, people are bound to speak up, said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the airline trade organization.

“It’s understandable that someone will voice concern when you charge more than you did before,’’ Castelveter said.

Heightened security hasn’t helped either, said Andres Kello, president of AirlineComplaints.org. He said his website’s traffic doubled last year over 2009. Complaints filed with the Transportation Security Administration, which are recorded separately, rose 24 percent from fiscal year 2009 to 2010.

“The TSA is also becoming more invasive, and that is no doubt making passengers crankier and thus more willing to complain about any issue they might experience during their travels,’’ Kello said.

But things aren’t as bleak as the rising number of complaints might imply. On-time performance was better, there were fewer long tarmac delays, and mishandled baggage rates were lower than they were in 2009, according to data collected through the end of November by the transportation department. And the rate of complaints is lower than it has been in some past years.

Regardless, the plight of airline passengers has been receiving more attention lately, in part due to the so-called passengers’ bill of rights that went into effect last spring requiring airlines to allow passengers to disembark after three hours on the tarmac, or face a hefty fine. And the more aware people are, the more likely they are to speak up, several airline industry specialists said.

It’s also easier to complain than ever. A year ago, the Department of Transportation revamped its consumer complaint website, airconsumer.dot.gov/problems.htm, to make the process simpler. And with Internet access as close as a pocket or purse these days, more people are whipping out their phones to file a report on the spot.

The transportation department sends complaints to each airline and looks for patterns that might indicate a problem. If there are repeated violations of a regulation, such as discrimination against disabled travelers, the department could levy a fine.

Airlines compensate passengers who complain to them directly in a number of ways, including vouchers for future flights, refunds, paying for lost luggage, frequent flier miles, passes to VIP lounges, and coupons for free drinks onboard. And as the complaints pile up, airlines are taking steps to alleviate the growing dissatisfaction.

Complaints filed with the DOT for JetBlue Airways, the biggest carrier at Logan International Airport, grew 58 percent through November of last year, while its number of passenger boardings increased 10 percent.

The airline attributes its rise in complaints to bad weather, the tarmac delay rule, a new computer system, and construction at its hub, John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. In addition, during the severe storm on the day after Christmas, the airline’s phone system was so overloaded that it repeatedly hung up on callers trying to rebook their flights.

JetBlue has started using an automatic rebooking tool that reschedules people on canceled flights — something some airlines already have in place — and launched a program to survey crew members about how to improve customer service.

“Customers expect more of JetBlue and we constantly survey them to identify opportunities for us to improve,’’ said spokeswoman Alison Croyle.

Delta, which has generated the highest rate of complaints over the last two years, last year hired an additional 1,700 full-time airport customer service representatives, reservations agents, and mechanics across the nation. Additionally, the airline formed a staff to seek out people with problems by using Twitter and equipped gate agents with hand-held equipment to help customers rebook flights. The airline’s efforts seem to be making a difference: Its year-over-year rate of complaints has gone down every month since August.

“We’re not trying to directly address the specific number of complaints as much as we’re trying to address the operational issues, which will in turn reduce the overall number of complaints,’’ said Delta spokesman Anthony Black.

United Airlines, which had the second highest rate of complaints in November with 1.22 complaints per 100,000 boardings, has a new mobile service that allows customers to check in and get paperless boarding passes on their smartphones. This not only cuts down on the time they have to wait in line, they also get updates about gate changes and flight delays.

“Not getting the level of information that they expect in real time is a big driver of complaints,’’ said Rahsaan Johnson, spokesman for United.

On the other side of the spectrum is Southwest Airlines, which consistently garners the least number of complaints — just 264 complaints out of more than 97 million passenger boardings through November of last year.

The reason is twofold, said Teresa Laraba, senior vice president of customer services: no fees for checking bags or changing flights, and a dedication to treating people well.

“Our employees take a huge amount of pride in where we rate in the DOT,’’ she said.

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.