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And the Most Complained-About Airline Is …

And the Most Complained-About Airline Is …

This week, the Department of Transportation released its latest monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, which includes information on airline-related consumer complaints for the full 2013 calendar year. The good news, according to the report: Complaints during 2013 were down 14.1 percent from the previous year.

That statistical improvement shouldn’t be taken too seriously. It’s simply based on the number of complaints travelers have taken the time and trouble to bring to the DOT’s attention, and is at best an imprecise gauge of the level of consumer dissatisfaction with the airlines.

More meaningful than the year-over-year numbers is the ranking of the airlines, showing which received more complaints, and which fewer. To compensate for the differences among the carriers’ passenger numbers, the DOT’s ranking is based on the number of complaints per 100,000 enplanements.

From best (fewest complaints per 100,000 enplanements) to worst, U.S. airlines’ 2013 performance was as follows:

  1. Southwest – 0.34
  2. Alaska Air – 0.44
  3. Delta – 0.59
  4. JetBlue – 0.63
  5. AirTran – 0.73
  6. Skywest – 0.80
  7. Mesa – 0.85
  8. Endeavor – 0.86
  9. ExpressJet – 0.96
  10. Hawaiian – 1.06
  11. Virgin America – 1.28
  12. US Airways – 1.42
  13. American Eagle – 1.70
  14. American – 1.99
  15. United – 2.14
  16. Frontier – 3.09

It’s not surprising that Southwest is top-ranked, with the lowest level of complaints. The airline has consistently succeeded by keeping consumers’ expectations low, and then exceeding those expectations.

At the other end of the spectrum, worst-ranked Frontier is in the process of shifting to an ultra-low-cost business model, a la Spirit (which, unfortunately, is not included in the report). The high level of complaints likely reflects customers’ distaste for the airline’s new approach.

What is surprising is the disparity among the legacy airlines, with Delta in the top three, and American and United in the bottom three. Is Delta really that much better than American and United, or is this another case of an airline exceeding customers’ low expectations?

Reader Reality Check

Is the DOT’s ranking consistent with your experience?

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  • Deon Charles

    United used to have an awesome frequent flyer program and decent service. Smisek/Continental came in and destroyed both. I’m willing to put up with service problems when the frequent flyer program makes up for it. That’s no longer the case, so I, and presumably others, are now more wiling to complain about service problems.

  • Allen

    I’m all done with United since they just destroyed their frequent flyer program. Losers.
    American Airlines and Alaska have the very best FF program.

  • Nick Knight

    Spirt, would be the worst, but their not listed.

  • jvmurph

    I can’t believe Spirit Air is not on the bottom of this list. They are the worst!

  • gwen2k

    Absolutely. AA is horrible to fly on any more. The people are rude and very unaccomodating and they could care less if you have a problem. They act like they are doing you a favor to fly with them.
    On the other hand, SWA is fun, the flight crews are consistently kind and considerate, the planes are clean, and they give much better service than AA, all at a lower price. I choose to spend my $$ where I am treated with respect.

  • betty blanco

    United seems to be getting worse and worse. Even first class is nothing special.

  • henry hockenberry

    With Delta changing the ff program I dumped them and went to Usair . Now is the time for Usair/American to keep up and improve the ff programs and get many of the Delta customers. Delta was once a very fine airline and now they’re trying to destroy themselves.