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A consumer watchdog report found that complaints against airlines have continued to increase in 2023, despite improvements made on cancellations and delays.

From lost baggage to late refunds, passenger complaints against airlines skyrocketed earlier this year. 

Consumer complaints against airlines in the first five months of 2023 surpassed 2022 levels during the same time period, according to a report from consumer watchdog U.S. Public Interest Research Group released Thursday. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection said this month, in its Air Travel Consumer Report, that it had received so many complaints that it had to delay the release of the data. 

“The Department is examining how best to review and process the consumer complaints received to avoid reporting delays as it is increasingly clear that consumer complaints are not returning to pre-pandemic levels,” the department said in its report.

U.S. travelers filed a total of 38,135 complaints against U.S carriers, foreign carriers, travel agents and tour operators during the first five months of 2023, according to the PIRG report, which uses data from the DOT. Of those complaints, 26,312 were against U.S. airlines.

Ultra-low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines led the pack, with a consumer complaint ratio of 33.5 per 100,000 passengers. Spirit Airlines came in second place, having a consumer complaint ratio of 13 per 100,000 passengers. 

Frontier and Spirit did not respond to a request for comment. 

The PIRG report found that complaints directed at the entire industry, including foreign carriers, travel agents and tour operators, increased by 68%. 

What Travelers Complain About

Even though airlines have made significant improvements to its cancellations rates and completion factors, around 35% of consumer complaints were related to flight issues, whether it was cancellations, delays or missed connections. 

The report found that cancellations decreased significantly — the major U.S. airlines had a cancellation rate of 1.6% in 2023, down from 2.8% in 2022. 

Complaints about mishandled baggage and wheelchairs made up around 16% of the complaints, which was fairly similar to 2022. 

Since the pandemic, airlines have had a rocky return to normal as demand for travel has surged and the industry has been plagued by labor shortages.

Cancellations and delays defined much of the travel experience in 2022, and even as airlines have touted a smoother 2023, it appears as if the passenger experience still has room for improvement. 

Teresa Murray, a consumer advocate at PIRG who authored the report, said crowded flights are another source of complaints. 

“Flights are fuller, there is less overhead bins space,” Murray said. “There’s a little more jockeying for seats.” 

With more crowded flights, passengers are more likely to get bumped off the plane, either involuntarily or voluntarily, Murray added. And if there’s no overhead bin space because a flight is crowded, those passengers have to check-in their carry-ons, increasing the likelihood of mishandled baggage. 

The high tally of complaints comes as the Biden administration has sought to enact more consumer protections in the airline industry. So far, the Biden administration has demanded that airlines refund customers for lengthy delays and encouraged airlines to not charge extra fees for family seating. 

However, as an increasing number of passengers appear to be dissatisfied with the airline industry, it’s unclear whether the DOT will consider imposing more consumer protections. 

“The question now is — in this fourth consecutive year of airlines angering customers in numbers never experienced before 2020 — what will regulators do about issues that clearly need to be addressed?” the PIRG report read. 

Here is a breakdown of the complaints:

  • Cancellations, delays and missed connections: 35% 
  • Late or missing refunds: 20%
  • Lost or damaged baggage and wheelchairs: 16%
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Tags: frontier airlines, spirit airlines

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