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airplane silhouetteI have just as many gripes about airlines as the next person, and given that I’m a travel journalist, I tend to smile and nod vehemently when they’re crucified for decreasing seat sizes and charging for things like carry-on bags. But I can’t keep my mouth shut on this one.

After analyzing federal data, a group of private researchers says airline complaints from passengers increased by about 20 percent in 2012, despite more on-time flights and fewer lost bags, the Associated Press reports.

While I agree that customer complaints are bad — in an ideal world, there would be none at all — the article goes on to say this: “United Airlines had the highest consumer complaint rate of the 14 airlines included in the report, with 4.24 complaints per 100,000 passengers.” Forgive me if I sound insensitive, but is there really a reason to be terribly concerned if the worst offender generates only four complaints for every 100,000 of its passengers?

And let’s not forget this added tidbit: “That was nearly double the airline’s complaint rate the previous year.” Oh, the horror! Now four of every 100,000 United passengers are angry instead of two? I think I just heard the audience gasp.

To be fair, these numbers only include the passengers who were annoyed enough to report their grievances to the U.S. Department of Transportation; there are probably many more who took their complaints solely to the airline. And of course, seeing the number of complaints double is never a good sign. But let’s keep things in perspective.

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The AP also notes that larger planes and smaller seat sizes, which allow airlines to cram more passengers onto each plane, still aren’t enough to offset the decreased number of available flights — meaning last year saw a rise in the number of passengers bumped due to overbooking. “The rate at which passengers with tickets were denied seats because planes were full rose to 0.97 denials per 10,000 passengers last year, compared with 0.78 in 2011.”

In plain English, it means that of every 10,000 passengers, less than one person gets bumped because his or her flight is full. Can I get a big, fat “so what?”

Let’s focus on what the airlines are doing right. Want your bag to get to your destination at the same time you do? You’re in luck. According to the AP, the mishandled bag rate was 3.07 in 2012, down from 3.35 bags the previous year (and a high of 7.01 bags back in 2007). That means about three of every 1,000 bags were mishandled in the last two years. Yes, I’ve had lost luggage, and I know that for those three passengers, it’s terrible. But the stats are getting better.

The same is true for on-time arrivals, about 82 percent of which arrived on time in 2012 — an improvement over the 80 percent that landed on time in 2011.

I happen to think this is a positive outlook for the industry. Now, if only someone could figure out ways to speed up the security process and keep that middle seat unoccupied.

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What do you think? Is the report full of hot air, or does it have merit? Weigh in below.

–written by Ashley Kosciolek

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