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More hate to fly, and it shows on complaint logs

Except for Southwest Airlines, 1999 has been "an awful year," an expert says of the delays and cancellations.

With the exception of Southwest Airlines, customer complaints about nearly every major U.S. air carrier jumped sharply in the first half of this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported Wednesday.

American Airlines was criticized the most in the department's latest six-month review.

Flight delays and cancellations were the top cause of traveler dissatisfaction, with customer service ranking second. Overall, the industry's complaint rate per 100,000 passengers doubled, from 0.93 for the first half of last year to 1.86 for the same period this year.

"It's really been an awful year," said Darryl Jenkins, an aviation professor at George Washington University, who called 1999 one of the worst for air travel since airlines were deregulated a decade ago. He blamed congestion in the skies, inside airports and in airplanes and said both the federal government and airlines have failed to respond.

Hardest hit by delays, American Airlines was cited in 1,067 of the total 5,005 complaints registered with the federal government from January through June. The Fort Worth, Texas, carrier also has been at or near the bottom for on-time performance in the six-month standings.

Southwest, a no-frills airline that offers spare service and little food but a tradition of friendly informality, received the fewest complaints by a wide margin. In 31.5-million passenger trips flown, only 92 customers registered complaints. Dallas-based Southwest also ranked first or near the top for on-time arrivals.

But the rest of the industry was a target for a rising number of complaints by letter, phone and e-mail.

"Obviously we don't like that," said American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith, who blamed several factors, including a 12-day sick-out by American's pilots last February and extraordinarily harsh spring weather. He also pointed to the Federal Aviation Administration's overhaul of air traffic control equipment for causing flight delays.

Moreover, Smith said that it's much easier to complain now that customers can easily file complaints to the Transportation Department on an Internet site.

Delta Air Lines spokesman John Kennedy seconded that point in explaining why Delta received more than double the complaints it received a year ago.

"Crowded airports and unprecedented delays on the air and ground due to a congested traffic control system have combined to cause unpleasant experiences for some travelers _ many travelers, to be truthful," Kennedy said.

Even so, he said, Delta was pleased that its percentage of complaints gave it the third best ranking after Southwest and Alaska airlines.

Although airlines have promised improvements, Jenkins warned not to expect them soon.

"It's been a bad year," he said. "It will get worse before it ever gets better."

The aviation expert said that antiquated aviation infrastructurerequires a major overhaul to relieve the congestion that's at the root of the problem.

Jenkins said of air travel today: "It's like going on a four-lane highway when it goes down to one lane, and then imagine, on top of that, an accident 20 miles down the road. That's what the air traffic control system is like this year."

Customers will make a difference only "if their complaints would move Congress to get off their duff and give the FAA the funding and the things they need," he said.

How to complain

The Transportation Department's Aviation Consumer Protection Division operates a complaint system for consumers who experience air travel service problems. Consumers may call the ACPD any time at (202) 366-2220 to record a complaint. Phone calls are not returned.

The mailing address is: Aviation Consumer Protection Division, U.S. Department of Transportation, Room 4107, C-75, Washington, DC 20590

The e-mail address is airconsumerost.dot.gov

Include the following information: your name, address and daytime phone number including area code, the name of the airline or company about which you are complaining, the flight date, flight number, and origin and destination cities of your trip. If you write, you should also include a copy of your airline ticket (not the original) and any correspondence you have already exchanged with the company.

Chart text not provided electronically. Please see microfilm.

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