Airlines see fuller flights despite rise in complaints

04/07/2013 5:28 PM

08/08/2014 10:16 AM

U.S. airlines improved their performance last year in two key areas: the number of mishandled bags and on-time arrivals. Even so, passenger complaints rose nearly 20 percent, a new study shows.

The study, the annual Airline Quality Rating report, looks at four major areas of airline performance: mishandled bags, on-time arrivals, denied boardings and customer complaints.

The airlines’ performance looks good on the surface, said Dean Headley, a Wichita State University associate professor of marketing and co-author of the 23-year-old report. Besides complaints, the number of denied boardings also rose.

“On the whole, people are still unhappy,” Headley said.

One reason for the increased number of complaints may stem from the fact that airlines have taken planes out of service and reduced the number of seats available to more closely match supply and demand. Flights are full, which is good for the airlines, Headley said.

“But for the passengers, if that cancellation or delay or that schedule change happens, it doesn’t mean they will get on the next airplane,” Headley said. “It may be a day or two wait.”

Ten years ago, airlines could break even when load factors – how full a flight was – were about 65 percent, Headley said. Today, with the fuel crisis and fuel price increases, load factors must be up around 78 to 80 percent for airlines to break even.

“I can understand why the airlines want to have more full flights,” he said.

That strategy resulted in airlines making money last year, he said.

“You’re not throwing money down a rat hole anymore if you buy airline stocks,” Headley said.

Airlines can now invest in new equipment – which is good for Wichita, where parts for commercial airplanes are built – upgrade systems, renovate planes or do other things they need to do, he said.

Airline consolidations also tend to mean lower performance and increased complaints for the airlines involved. In a consolidation, “you have a period of time, usually it’s a year or two, when things don’t go well,” Headley said.

In 2010, United Airlines and Continental merged. Customer complaints to United were up last year, he said.

More mergers are in store.

AirTran Airways and Southwest Airlines merged two years ago, and Southwest is in the midst of combining the two systems. American Airlines and US Airways also plan to merge.

Last year, the largest number of passengers complaining to the Department of Transportation, 33 percent, complained about flight problems.

Fifteen percent complained about reservations, ticketing and boarding issues; 14 percent complained about customer service issues, while 12 percent complained about baggage issues.

Time will tell what, if any, effect sequestration will have on airline travel, Headley said. If the Transportation Security Administration cuts back or furloughs workers because of budget cuts, passengers may face longer security lines at airports around the country. That means consumers may have to arrive at airports earlier to deal with longer wait times.

The Airline Quality Rating report uses information from the Department of Transportation. The ratings are viewed each year by more than 75 million people, according to the report.

Other findings from the report include:

• An increase in on-time arrivals from 80 percent in 2011 to 82 percent in 2012
• A decrease in mishandled bags from 3.35 bags per 1,000 passengers in 2011 to 3.07 per 1,000 passengers in 2012
• An increase in denied boardings from 0.78 per 10,000 passengers in 2011 to 0.97 per 10,000 passengers in 2012
• An increase in customer complaints from 1.19 per 100,000 customers in 2011 to 1.43 per 100,000 passengers in 2012

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