Airline Passenger Complaints Up Sharply

Complaints about U.S. airlines have jumped more than 29 percent this year, according to the Department of Transportation, with big increases in canceled flights and baggage problems.

So far this year, US Airways has the most complaints per passenger, while Southwest Airlines has the fewest. The biggest complaint has been flight problems, which includes cancellations, delays and missed connections. In October, for example, the number of canceled flights increased nearly 52 percent to 10,475, from 6,895 canceled trips in October 2004. Mishandled baggage reports increased as well, rising nearly 22 percent to 239,452 for the month, compared with 196,847 mishandled bags a year earlier.

The Transportation Department says it thinks complaints are up this year because more people are flying. Through October, U.S. airlines boarded 496.2 million passengers this year, up 3 percent from 481.2 million in the first 10 months of 2004, according to the DOT. Massive airline schedule changes have also added disruption, leading to more gripes.

The DOT is also receiving more complaints, ironically, about unsatisfactory responses to complaints from airlines, a senior official says. Financial strains have left fewer workers to respond to complaints, and airlines are perhaps less generous at doling out compensation to customers.

For travelers, all this raises the question: Do complaints ever result in change? To those who register complaints with airlines or the DOT, it can sometimes seem that their protests and problems fall on deaf ears.

"All I got was some Bozo piece of literature back that didn't respond to my letter at all," says John Pitney, who endured a US Airways flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles with all four toilets inoperable and a crew indifferent to passengers.

That was in 2003, and he's still angry about it.

Airlines say they do take complaints to heart and try to track down poorly behaving employees or recurring problems. Complaints often get routed to managers, supervisors and senior executives. And the DOT says that while it doesn't have much consumer-protection clout under federal law -- other than enforcing antidiscrimination measures -- officials do look for trends and pressure airline executives about bad service at monthly meetings focusing on complaints.

Frequent-flier status and a high ticket price help determine how you'll get treated at many airlines. If you have either, you have a better chance at accommodation. If you rarely fly the airline and have a cheap ticket, it's often a different story.

That's what Amy Klein discovered when she booked cheap tickets to a family reunion last year on UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, only to get a call about three weeks before her departure notifying her that she had been moved to a later flight because of a scheduling change. That meant she'd miss a family dinner, but when she called to reschedule, a reservation agent told her the flight she had booked still existed under a different flight number. Seats were reassigned by fare class, an agent told her, and since her ticket was the cheapest, she got bumped.

Furious, the Menlo Park., Calif., investment adviser complained to United and the DOT, and got form-letter responses from both. Of United's response, Klein says, "The response was no response. It didn't answer the situation." The DOT sent a note saying her complaint had been tallied.

United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski says the airline tries to customize letters and didn't intend to send Klein a form letter, but the company does use "consistent language about our policy to ensure our messages are clear and concise every time."

United encourages customer feedback, says Urbanski, even offering postage-paid comment cards. Vouchers toward the purchase of future travel are handed out based on the cause and severity of the complaint, as well as "how loyal the customer is to United and how much the customer paid for his or her ticket," she says.

Travel experts say consumers should try to resolve problems on the spot. Chase down supervisors when possible or appeal to airline-club staff, who are experienced at keeping customers happy. If you do have elite-level frequent-flier status, lodging complaints through the frequent-flier department rather than the general customer-service department can produce quicker results.

The Transportation Department says it loads complaints into a database and releases a monthly tally so consumers can track airline performance. The report is available at . The DOT tracks on-time performance, cancellations, baggage mishandling, customer complaints, passengers denied boarding because flights were oversold, complaints about the Department of Homeland Security and incidents of loss, injury or death to pets. Passengers can email complaints to cf,fgc cf,ceno or call (202) 366-2220.

The DOT also tallies complaints against foreign airlines, travel agents and tour operators. Air France has the most complaints recorded at the DOT through October; baggage problems are the most frequent complaint against foreign airlines. An Air France spokeswoman says she couldn't comment.

Even when airlines send detailed responses, though, they can leave consumers angry. Irvin Beaver complained to Continental Airlines about a Newark, N.J., supervisor who refused to help him as he nervously tried to find his 16-year-old daughter returning from London last August. Displays at the airport listed Flight 29 as having landed, but 15 minutes later, his daughter called him to say they had landed somewhere -- she didn't know where -- for fuel.

Anxious, Beaver went to Continental's information desk and was incorrectly told the plane landed at Newark. One employee found a supervisor, but she refused to help, declaring she was on "coffee break." Beaver, a retired police officer, noted her name.

A letter from Continental said Flight 29 landed in Newburgh, N.Y., for fuel because of a 35-minute wait to takeoff and possible delay to land in Newark because of congestion there. The airline said it found the "limited and inaccurate updates" to be "incomprehensible."

The customer-care representative -- one of 180 employees who respond to queries -- wrote that Beaver's letter was forwarded to Continental's Newark general manager, and added that she couldn't say what action was taken against the supervisor but "rude and unprofessional behavior is not tolerated."

"It was not a form letter," says Continental spokesman Ned Walker. "They did a lot of research."

Still, the letter didn't satisfy Beaver. "I didn't expect much back from them," he says, "but all it amounted to was 'Hello, we're so sorry, la la la la.' "

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