As airlines battled COVID, customer complaints and delays skyrocketed, report says


As the volume of passenger traffic declined at airports due to the coronavirus pandemic, complaints from travelers about airlines and airport delays increased, according to a report released Thursday by the US Public Interest Research Group.

And when it comes to “punctuality,” Newark Liberty International Airport ranked among the bottom of 16 US airports polled by the report’s authors.

Getting cash refunds for canceled flights appears to be the biggest complaint from travelers, especially after understaffing caused thousands of flight cancellations starting this summer, according to the report.

Among the conclusions of the reports:

– More than 34,000 airline passengers were angry enough with their experiences to file formal complaints with the DOT from 2021 to August. May 2020 saw the highest with 21,951 complaints filed.

– Sporadic massive cancellations by airlines occur more frequently. In November, American Airlines, the country’s largest carrier, canceled more than 2,000 flights over several days.

– In October, Southwest Airlines, the country’s second largest, canceled more than 2,000 flights in one weekend. Over the summer, Spirit Airlines canceled nearly 3,000 flights over an 11-day period.

– Hundreds of thousands of consumers are still trying to get $ 10 billion in refunds for flights canceled last year, with many airlines refusing to refund cash and offering tickets or credits instead.

– Refunds are the most common customer problem, generating 107,781 complaints from April 2020 to August 2021, which is the latest data available, according to the report. Typically, airlines offer vouchers or credits for future flights, not cash.

The report and airlines blamed labor shortages for the cancellations. But the USPIRG has taken the industry to task over employee layoffs and early retirement buybacks, which also thinned the ranks.

The industry had 407,965 employees in August, down 10% or 40,295 workers from March 2020 when the pandemic hit. This was despite about $ 50 billion in federal COVID-19 bailouts that the airline industry received.

Newark was the worst airport of the 16 reviewed with 74% of flights departing on time between January 2016 and August 2021. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport had the best on-time performance with 83%.

The report also ranked 10 major airlines for on-time arrival for flights between June 2020 and August 2021 and found that Delta had the best on-time arrival record at 90.5%, followed by Hawaiian. at 90.4%, Alaska Air at 88% and Southwest at 85.4% and United, which has a hub in Newark, at 85.2%.

“They are well justified in these complaints. We have a situation where there have been unprecedented cancellations from the airlines, ”said Paul Hudson, president of Flyers Rights. “When they take the money for transportation and they don’t, it’s basic common law that they can’t keep the money and that’s what airlines do when they give you a voucher for a flight at a later date that may or may not go. “

The authors of the report examined data from more than 200,000 complaints filed since 2016 with the Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection against the airline industry and data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics regarding departures and departures. flight arrivals from January 2016.

“This is a good report because this information is not new, it has been trickling out, but it is a comprehensive report that could be useful in congressional hearings,” he said. “COVID was not their manufacture (the airlines), but their reaction was. These are decisions made by airline executives.

Flyers Rights, which has 60,000 members, called for conditions to be placed on federal COVID assistance to the airline industry, but no conditions were placed on the assistance, Hudson said.

The delays, especially in the New Jersey-New York region, are due to runway and airspace restrictions hampering the expansion, Hudson said.

“Anyone passing through Newark Airport can see the line of planes as far as the eye can see,” he said. “The only answer is they need a fourth airport in the New York metro area.”

Airlines4America, representing seven airlines, refuted some of the report’s claims.

“A4A member carriers comply with all federal laws and regulations regarding cash refunds. Since the start of the pandemic, US carriers have issued approximately $ 20 billion in cash refunds, ”said Jamie Gleklen, a spokesperson.

He cited a sharp drop in complaints to the US DOT as evidence that in the first three quarters of 2021, US airlines issued 3.5% more cash refunds than in the same period of 2019, despite the generation of 46% less passenger revenues.

“Throughout the pandemic, carriers have updated their travel policies – including the elimination of change fees, to provide increased flexibility for customers,” Gleklen said. “They are committed to working with each client to respond to their individual situation. “

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Larry Higgs can be reached at [email protected].

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