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Air travel getting more unpleasant, research suggests

04/13/2015 10:01 EDT | Updated 06/19/2015 02:59 EDT
It's not just your imagination — a pair of U.S. researchers who have analyzed reams of data about U.S. airlines confirm that travellers have more reasons to complain than ever before.

More flights are late, more bags are getting lost, and customers are lodging more complaints about U.S. airlines, government data shows. Dean Headley, a marketing professor at Wichita State and one of the co-authors of the annual report released Monday, said passengers already know that air travel is getting worse. "We just got the numbers to prove it."

Transport Canada tracks similar numbers for Canadian air travel. Data for 2014 is not yet available, but the numbers from Canada from 2013 show a similar trend.

The air travel complaints commissioner received 301 complaints against eight Canadian carriers in 2012-13, up from 215 complaints in 2011-12. The agency received 167 complaints about Air Canada that year, more than any other Canadian airline.

Complaints against foreign carriers rose to 218 in 2012-13, compared to 145 the previous year. The most-cited foreign carrier that drew complaints from Canadians was Swissair, with 68 complaints.

But those numbers only include complaints that escalate all the way to the formal dispute process with the agency. They don't tabulate the countless minor annoyances that travellers likely never officially lodge a complaint about. 

The U.S. numbers show a distinct trend among some of the more common complaints. Report findings include:

- More delays — The percentage of flights that arrived on time fell to 76.2 per cent last year from 78.4 per cent in 2013. Best: Hawaiian Airlines. Worst: Envoy Air, which operates most American Eagle flights.

- More lost bags — The rate of lost, stolen or delayed bags rose 13 per cent in 2014. Best: Virgin America. Worst: Envoy. Airlines lose one bag for every 275 or so passengers, but at Envoy, the rate is one lost bag for every 110 passengers, according to government figures.

- More oversold flights — The rate of passengers getting bumped from flights rose 3 per cent. Best: Virgin America. Worst: a tie, between SkyWest and its ExpressJet subsidiary.

- More complaints overall — Consumer complaints to the government jumped 22 per cent in 2014. Best: Alaska Airlines. Worst: Frontier.

Regional carriers, which operate flights under names like American Eagle, United Express and Delta Connection, tend to earn the worst marks. They fly smaller planes, so when airlines are forced to cut flights due to bad weather, they ground the regionals first to inconvenience fewer passengers.

But the picture was bleak at the four biggest U.S. airlines too. On-time performance fell and complaint rates rose at American, United, Delta and Southwest.

Headley said airlines performed better in the years after 2001, when travel demand fell and planes were less crowded. Airlines were also losing money. They returned to profitability when mergers reduced competition and the remaining airlines limited flights to keep fares up. The average plane is now more than 80 per cent full at most airlines, and many flights are oversold.

"They have put the same number of people in fewer airplanes," Headley said in an interview. "Anytime the system ramps up, it goes haywire."

Improvements coming

Airlines are ordering new planes and making other investments that they promise will lead to better service. Many of the biggest improvements are targeted at the airlines' most valued customers — those in first-class and business-class sections.

The annual report is now in its 25th year. Headley and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor Brent Bowen use information that the airlines submit to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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