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Those Who Pay the Least Have Most Complaints

February 02, 1986|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Do you get what you pay for? If recent Department of Transportation figures of complaints against U.S. airlines are any indication, the answer could be yes.

In the most recent listing of passenger complaints to the federal agency, three discount airlines scored among the top four airlines as doing the worst job in satisfying their customers, in terms of the number of complaints received by the federal agency.

Those George Burns ads may be effective in getting folks to fly World Airways, but a lot of people out there want to know when was the last time that George flew the carrier.

World Airways led major U.S. airlines in at least one statistic: the most consumer complaints filed at the Department of Transportation.

According to the most recent government figures (for September and October, 1985), the airline received 7.8 complaints per 100,000 passengers in September. In October that figure zoomed to 29.6.

Complaints Categorized

In third place was Continental, followed by People Express.

The 14 complaint categories established by DOT include overbooking of flights, misleading advertising, refunds, lost or damaged baggage, customer service, no-smoking regulations, ticket refunds and flight delays.

The complaint statistics show airlines that have received five or more complaint letters at DOT in any one month.

Biggest problem area in the complaint letters? Flight problems (mostly flight cancellations or delays), followed by baggage problems. Fewest complaints against airlines were in the area of air tours sponsored by airlines.

Second place in the complaints contest went to Pan American (3.7 complaints per 100,000 passengers), and last place (fewest complaints) went to Hawaii-based Aloha Airlines.

Long Flights Strain Carriers

Perhaps one reason airlines such as Aloha scored so well is that, because of their schedules and length of their flights, passengers literally don't have the time to complain. Or, because the Aloha flights only hop between the islands of Hawaii and flights last less than an hour, passengers don't board Aloha planes expecting anything more than a safe takeoff and landing.

Long international flights can expose an airline such as Pan Am to the possibility of more complaints. After all, more things can go wrong--flight delays, weather, deteriorating cabin staff attitude.

TWA only registered 3.02 complaints per 100,000 passengers, down from previous complaint reports. United, on the other hand, registered 3.48 complaints per 100,000 passengers, a slight increase.

Most airlines, like TWA, claim they take their passengers' complaints seriously.

Computer System Used

"We track the letters and calls that we get very carefully," says Bahir Browsh, TWA's director of marketing, planning and support.

TWA keeps a close watch on its complaint letters, putting most of them into a computer that prompts the specific offending department to follow through with the complaining passenger.

"We want to identify problems and correct them," Browsh says. "We may not be able to satisfy every individual complaint, but if we can isolate a problem area or department in our operation, then we can correct it."

Republic has maintained a low complaint figure; the airline boasts one of the smallest passenger complaint ratios of all major U.S. airlines, less than one complaint per 100,000 passengers in 1985. Republic also had 47% fewer complaints in 1984 than in 1983.

Airlines May Handle Them

"Remember," says Republic spokesman Red Tyler, "that these federal figures essentially record the complaints that airlines weren't able to satisfy directly.

"What this can often mean is that the airline with the fewest complaints filed at the Department of Transportation is the airline that is reasonable and timely in handling the complaint when it first gets it from a passenger."

DOT is quick to agree.

"These complaint figures may not be an accurate reflection of all complaints in the airline industry," says DOT spokesman Wallace Stefany.

"Carriers are not required to report the number of complaints they get directly to us. We are only reporting the complaints sent to us directly by the passengers who felt their complaints weren't properly handled by the airlines."

If You Have a Complaint

"There certainly is an incentive to get a complaint handled quickly," says Republic's Tyler. "We try to handle the complaint before it gets out of hand and manage it to a satisfactory conclusion."

Republic was just bought by Northwest, which has a worse complaint percentage (1.87 complaints per 100,000 passengers).

What happens if something goes wrong on one of your flights? First, seek out a supervisor. Airlines tend to limit the authority of flight attendants and counter agents. More often than not, only a supervisor can correct a problem immediately.

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