Consumers' airline service gripes soar

The Baltimore Sun

Consumer complaints about airline service soared 107 percent in July, the government said yesterday, the most misery reported for that month in five years.

The U.S. Department of Transportation fielded 1,717 complaints in July, up from 831 in July 2006, according to the agency's Air Travel Consumer Report.

Delays, severe weather in the Northeastern U.S. and an increasingly impersonal customer service system contributed to travelers' frustrations.

"Agents have been replaced with kiosks that can't handle basic rebooking functions," said Artur Pylak, a Newington, Conn., business consultant who had to bunk with relatives in Chicago in July when a United Airlines flight to New York was canceled because of storms.

Airlines say they know they must do better.

"Our summer performance was below the norm for Delta," said Betsy Talton, a spokeswoman for Delta Air Lines, which saw its consumer complaints rise to 171 in July from 77 a year earlier.

Although air travel discontent has been building all year, it worsened dramatically in July. The complaint total of 1,717 for the month was up from just 1,094 in June and 929 in May.

SkyWest Inc.'s Atlantic Southeast unit, which had the lowest on-time performance in 2006, also had the worst record in July, with 54 percent of flights arriving on time.

Delta's Comair unit was second worst, at 62 percent, followed by AMR Corp.'s American Airlines at 63 percent.

Just 70 percent of flights arrived on schedule in July, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics said yesterday, based on reports from the 20 largest carriers. The results brought the average for the first seven months to 72 percent, also a record low. The worst previous July was in 2000.

About 68 percent of flights into Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport were on schedule. Southwest Airlines, which accounts for more than half of BWI's flights, had on-time arrival of about 73 percent.

Flights are considered on time if they are within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival.

BWI also was below average for departures, with 67.4 percent of flights taking off on time, compared with the average of 70.7 percent for 30 major U.S. airports.

Sobered by years of losses, airlines are filling planes to record levels. When disruptions occur, re-booking problems cascade across the system, which has less flexibility than in past years.

The 70 percent on-time arrival rate for all U.S. airlines in July was the worst on record for that month. Airlines blame an antiquated air traffic system for many of the delays and in August, Delta sent an electronic letter to its customers urging them to lobby Congress for more funds.

The airline held in lowest regard by consumers is US Airways, which was cited in 267 complaints in July, a rate of nearly 5 complaints per 100,000 passengers flown. Southwest Airlines was the least cited carrier with 33 gripes spread over 9.7 million passengers, a rate of 0.34 complaints per 100,000 flown.

Bloomberg News and Sun editor Bernard Kohn contributed to this article.

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