Complaints of airline delays, cancellations spike

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Passengers of Spirit Airlines, the Miramar, Fla.-based airline that bills itself as a no-frills, ultra low-cost carrier, lodged more gripes by far than customers of any U.S. airline over the last five years, an analysis of government data shows.

Known for charging fliers for their carry-on bags in addition to checked luggage, Spirit generated at least three times more complaints per passenger than any other airline, according to the analysis of U.S. Department of Transportation data by the U.S. Pirg Education Fund. As the airline has grown, complaints have skyrocketed, the report said.

Other most-complained about airlines included Frontier, United and American.

On the flip side, Dallas carrier Southwest Airlines generated the fewest complaints relative to its size among the 13 airlines reviewed. Alaska Airlines also was one of the least complained-about airlines during the period.

U.S. Pirg, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer group, examined complaints from 2009-2013 during a time when the industry saw consolidation that reduced service to smaller cities and increased crowding of seats, gates and runways.

Over the same period, airlines raised fares and added new fees for checked bags, seat selection, meals and other services that used to be included in the basic fare. Those additional fees “can easily add $100 or more to the cost of a one-way ticket,” the report said.

Overall, airfares fell about 50 percent from 1980 to 2009, but rose rapidly since 2010, a trend that is expected to continue, U.S. Pirg said.

The most frequent type of complaint over the last five years involved delays, cancellations or missed connections, which accounted for 33 percent of all complaints. While complaints about missed connections have remained relatively stable, grievances over delays and cancellations doubled over the period.

Other top complaint categories included baggage (15 percent), customer service (13 percent) and reservations/ticketing/boarding (13 percent).

On a bright note, complaints about mishandled bags have been dropping since 2009, except for an uptick last year. The report said the decline could be tied to new DOT rules that increased consumer compensation for lost or delayed baggage, or could be the result of more airlines charging baggage fees and causing fewer passengers to check their bags.

The report noted that Spirit, in addition to being the most complained about airline, was hit with DOT fines totaling more than a half-million dollars in recent years for violating consumer protection laws involving over-booking, baggage and deceptive advertising.

“Many of the DOT complaints about Spirit are driven by our customers not fully understanding that we offer unbundled fares that let them control how much they spend,” the airline responded in an email Thursday. “In 2013, we had a total of 1,021 DOT complaints and served over 12 million customers. While we want every customer to have a great experience, eight complaints per 100,000 enplanements is a pretty small number.”

According to U.S. Pirg’s report, complaints for the majority of other airlines ranged from two per 100,000 passengers to less than one over the five-year period. Over the same period, Spirit’s complaints ranged from around seven per 100,000 to more than nine.

Passengers can file airline complaints with the DOT over the phone, online or through the mail. (Call 1-202-366-2220, or visit The agency doesn’t intervene on consumers’ behalf. But it uses the data to spot trends and can follow-up on potential regulatory violations.

For the full report, “The Unfriendly Skies: Five Years of Airline Passenger Complaints to the DOT,” visit

Patricia Sabatini: or 412-263-3066.

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