Complaints against airlines drop 12%

After hearing Jim Engle of Sierra Madre, Calif., talk about the headaches he and his wife endured on a round trip to Detroit on American Airlines this summer, it might be surprising to hear that U.S. airlines continue to receive great marks in customer service.

The Engles suffered through several delays, an unscheduled stop and airline staff who, he said, were curt and unhelpful.

"And I don't have enough time to tell you about the extra charges for baggage and food and water, which ran out before half the plane was served," he said.

Despite the experience of the Engles and other passengers, the latest report from the U.S. Department of Transportation shows complaints against airlines dropped nearly 12 percent in September, compared with the same period last year and 32 percent from August 2009.

Even factoring in the overall drop in passenger traffic, the complaint rate against the airlines is down from 0.99 complaints per 100,000 passenger flights to 0.88 complaints per 100,000 passenger flights.

Airline critics believe the reason for the drop does not reflect improved airline services but a growing frustration by passengers so fed up that they don't file complaints. Engle, for example, didn't file a complaint with American or the Department of Transportation.

"They're miserable, and they are resigned that nothing is going to change," said Kate Hanni, founder of www.flyersrights.com, a Web site that has been pushing Congress to adopt a passenger's bill of rights.

Hanni, who has become a vocal airline critic since she and her family idled for nine hours on a tarmac in Austin, Texas, in 2006, said her organization's complaint hotline continues to receive a steady stream of calls from frustrated passengers.

Complaints reported to the Department of Transportation come directly from passengers who either call the complaint line, write the agency or file a complaint online. Airlines are required to report mishandled baggage, delayed flights, incidents involving pets, tarmac delays and other specific problems. However, the airlines are not required to report general grievances about service, such as dirty seats, rude staff and excessive fees.

Hanni and other critics say it may appear that the airlines are doing a better job because of the deep drop in passenger traffic.

Tim Smith, a spokesman for American, conceded that improved weather and declining passenger traffic have helped airlines reduce flight delays, lost luggage reports and other problems. But he attributes the drop in complaints at American to improved service.