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 http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/reports/index.htm . 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 airconsumerdot.gov 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.' "
With more crowded planes, "there's more likely to be service hiccups," said Air Travelers Association president David Stempler.
The 20 carriers reporting on-time performance recorded an overall on-time arrival rate of 80.0 percent in November.
The nation's largest airlines experienced improved on-time performance in April 2005 compared to both the previous month and April of last year.