Turbulence In The Skies As Air Travel Complaints Surge: What To Know

Patch News

ACROSS AMERICA — With just over a month remaining before Labor Day and the unofficial end of summer, many Americans are scheduling getaways before fall arrives.

Getting to their destinations by air without some kind of complication could be tricky as the airline industry struggles to return to normal with the lifting of COVID-19 travel restrictions and pent-up demand for travel.

That’s despite higher fares, persistent inflation and increasing interest rates — and despite an increase in traveler complaints. Complaints were 200 percent over pre-pandemic levels in May, but down 15 percent from April, when complaints were 300 percent over pre-pandemic levels, according to the latest data available in the July US Department of Transportation Air Travel Consumer Report.

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It’s a good tool to use while planning travel, providing a snapshot of airlines’ and airports’ records on getting people and their luggage to their destinations on time.

Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time arrival rate in the country in May, with 86 percent of its arriving flights on time, according to the report released last month. The on-time records of other carriers and their branded partners:

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  • Delta Air Lines network: 80.7 percent
  • Alaska Airlines network: 80.2 percent
  • American Airlines network: 77.4 percent
  • United Airlines network: 77.4 percent
  • Southwest Airlines: 76.8 percent
  • JetBlue Airways: 69.4 percent
  • Spirit Airlines: 68.8 percent
  • Allegiant Air: 66.0 percent
  • Frontier Airlines: 64.6 percent

The report also shows different airlines’ records on luggage handling. Among major airlines, American Airlines and its affiliated carriers had the worst baggage handling rate, at 0.79 percent of every 100 bags checked in May. United Airlines and its partners had a rate of 0.63 percent, and Delta Air Lines and its partners had a rate of 0.52.

Hawaiian Airlines and Southwest Airlines canceled the lowest number of flights in May, at 0.1 percent and 0.7 percent, respectively. United and its affiliates canceled 2.4 percent of flights, and the Delta group canceled 2.7 percent of flights that month.

Bumpy Summer Travel

It’s important to keep in mind that actual traveler experiences in June and July aren’t reflected in the DOT’s consumer reports. Travelers have faced deep lines, longer layovers and lost luggage this summer, with airline and airport staff shortages most often cited as the reason, according to Business Insider. It’s also important to remember that travel volume in May 2021 wasn’t near 2022 levels.

Americans’ experiences over the last holiday travel weekend — the 4th of July — aren’t reassuring. Airlines canceled more than 1,100 flights, a quarter of them United Airline, which said in a message to staff that more flights were scheduled than the air traffic control system could handle, Reuters reported.

The Federal Aviation administration disputed that, saying “there were no FAA staffing-related delays at all” July 3-4, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has said that air traffic control staffing issues don’t explain the majority of delays and cancellations.

Days earlier, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, asked Buttigieg to fine airlines $55,000 per passenger for each flight cancellation they knew couldn’t be fully staffed.

The widespread cancellations “left passengers and crew members stranded at crowded airports from one end of the country to the other, forcing them to miss weddings, funerals and business meetings, and ruining family vacations that have been planned for months,” Sanders wrote.

Travel difficulties could continue through Thanksgiving and Christmas, Buttigieg told the Deseret News Friday during a visit to Utah.

“It’s going to take a while for the pilot workforce to be back up to pre-COVID levels,” he said. “I don’t think this is going to be resolved overnight.”

There are some signs things are returning to normal, Buttigieg told the Deseret News, with cancellation rates around 2 percent now, down from 3 percent and 4 percent in the early spring.

As confounding as the last couple of months have been, the problems encountered in May were about on par with pre-pandemic levels, according to the DOT consumer complaints report.

Overall in May, airlines canceled about 2 percent of their scheduled domestic flights, about the same number as in pre-pandemic 2019. The on-time arrival rates in May 2022 (77.2 percent) and May 2019 (77.2 percent) were similar, too .

Some industry analysts say bouncing back from the pandemic exacerbated already existing staff shortages. Globally, there were 2.3 million fewer people employed in aviation in September 2021 than at the beginning of the pandemic, according to an Oxford Economics study.

“Now that you’re coming out of COVID, and the demand is actually showing sings of rapid recovery, you’re starting to see that they have fewer pilots and the same amount of flying to do,” Umang Gupta of Alton Aviation, a consulting company, told Business Insider.

What Can You Do?

Educate yourself. The DOT’s consumer complaints report provides a good snapshot of airlines’ and airports’ records on getting people and their luggage to their destinations on time.

When booking, fly direct if you can, and if you can’t, a one-hour layoff isn’t enough, a flight attendant wrote earlier this summer in The New York Times. Fly early in the day if possible.

Make sure you’ve downloaded the airline’s app ahead of time. Check the FlightAware tracking data site to make sure your flight or one you’re meeting is on time. Get to the airport early and avoid checking bags if possible. Don’t over pack your carry-on luggage to the point you hold up boarding trying to figure out how to fit it in the overhead bin.

If your flight is canceled, know your rights. Airlines may offer points or miles, but “you’re entitled to a cash refund when your flight is canceled,” Buttigieg tweeted. “When deciding whether to accept miles, it’s helpful to know their value, which varies, but often is estimated at 1 to 1.5 cents per mile.”

The DOT’s Consumer Guide to Air Travel has more detailed information.

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