Welcome to an increasingly small club.
Complaints about airlines across the nation in the first half of 2007 jumped 47 percent from last year. Problems only deepened during the heavily traveled summer months, with complaints rising 89 percent in August, the latest data available.
But don't abandon hope. Passengers looking to improve their flying experience can find out which airlines do the best and worst jobs at key tasks. And there are simple habits that fliers can adopt that increase their chances of a happy trip.
"Do the research," urges Coral Gables aviation consultant Stuart Klaskin, who flies at least 150 times a year.
OVERBOOKINGFor example, if you hate getting bumped, fly JetBlue Airways. In the first half of 2007, only 33 of the 10.7 million people who booked a JetBlue flight were denied boarding. That was by far the best record of any airline. But if you can't tolerate delays, you might steer clear of JetBlue Flights 14 and 18. Those are the last two daily departures from Fort Lauderdale to New York's JFK International Airport. In June they were late 80 percent of the time.
To learn about tardy flights and bumped passenger rates, check out the Air Travel Consumer Report, published online by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Updated monthly, it ranks airlines from best to worst on five different benchmarks and identifies flights that are chronically late.
Of the airlines that fly out of South Florida, Comair, a commuter affiliate of Delta Air Lines, had the worst 12-month record for delays, followed by JetBlue Airways and US Airways.
Many passengers don't know that the government posts data about airline performance.
"It's not really public knowledge," said Sommer Villani, a Long Island stock broker who was flying JetBlue from Fort Lauderdale recently. Villani said she picks flights mainly by schedule and booked JetBlue Flight 14 because it arrives after rush hour in New York.
COMPLAINTSOr take a cue from your fellow travelers. In the first half of 2007, fliers filed just 123 complaints about Southwest Airlines with the Transportation Department, but filed 925 about US Airways, or about one-fifth of the 5,049 complaints filed against all U.S. airlines in the period.
Adjusted for size, Southwest has the best complaint ratio of the 20 airlines tracked by the agency. US Airways had the worst.
"We're not happy with those results at all," said Valerie Wunder, a spokeswoman for US Airways, which added about 1,000 airport employees nationwide and a new chief operating officer in response.
Spirit Airlines, which isn't included in the government's survey because of its small size, had 122 complaints in the first half of 2007, a rate worse than US Airways when adjusted for size.
DELAYSAlmost 28 percent of all flights were late by 15 minutes or more in the first eight months of 2007, the worst performance in 10 years according to the Transportation Department.
Airlines blame a trio of factors — bad weather, full planes and an outdated air control system.
"We can probably handle two of those in combination," said Tim Wagner, spokesman for American Airlines, "but all three of them taken together, we can't hope to provide great service."
Delays are most likely during the morning and evening "rush hour" flights favored by business travelers and worst on flights late in the day, experts say. A flight barely late first thing in the morning leads to longer waits as the day goes on.
"That delay just rolls down the schedule all day long," said Jack Wishart, a professor at Vaughn College of Aeronautics in New York.
One example: Delta Air Lines Flight 453, scheduled to leave Atlanta at 8:10 p.m., was late arriving into Fort Lauderdale in June 80 percent of the time, with the average delay close to an hour.
Technology also is making it easier to keep track of flight delays in real-time. The Federal Aviation Administration posts a map at www.fly.faa.gov that shows whether 40 top airports are having no delays, 16- to 45-minute delays, delays of more than 45 minutes or are closed. The Florida airports included in the list are Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Tampa.
The agency also recently added a service that sends real-time information about airport delays to cell phones and wireless devices. Some airlines have similar services with flight-specific information. To use the services, passengers must establish an account with the airline or the FAA.
CANCELLATIONSAmerican Eagle canceled 5.9 percent of its flights in June, the most of any airline flying out of South Florida. The best showing came from Frontier Airlines, which plans to launch flights from Palm Beach International to Denver starting Nov. 15 and already flies from Fort Lauderdale. The airline canceled just 0.4 percent of its June schedule.
HANDLING BAGGAGEDelta and its commuter airline partner Comair were near the bottom in several rankings, including oversold flights and delays. Commuter carriers, such as Comair, American Eagle and Atlantic Southeast, also have notably higher rates of mishandled baggage because they are so often connecting to bigger flights.
"The more delays, the more missed connections," said Klaskin, the aviation consultant. "The more missed connections, the more lost bags."
Tom Stieghorst can be reached at email@example.com or at 305-810-5008.