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Federal Report Tabulates Passenger Complaints on Airlines

March 01, 1987|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

It should come as little surprise to most air travelers that 1986 was a year in which it was less fun to fly.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has just released its annual report on passenger complaints against 27 major and national airlines. And, according to the statistics, there was a significant 30% increase in passenger complaints against domestic airlines last year.

The Department of Transportation recorded 16,692 complaints and inquiries in 1986 (there were 13,335 in 1985). But these figures only represent a small percentage of the real number of complaints against airlines.

The "winner" in the complaints category for the second year in a row, with the most complaints filed, is World Airways. (Ironically, it's an airline that no longer flies scheduled passenger service.)

According to the most recent government figures, World is the clear leader, with 15.56 complaints per 100,000 passengers.

In second place is People Express, an airline that is also no longer flying. (The DOT also recorded 205 direct complaints against now-defunct Frontier, including 103 for ticket-refund problems.)

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

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

The biggest problem area in the complaint letters? Flight problems (mostly flight cancellations or delays), followed by baggage problems.

There were some surprises in the statistics. Third place in the complaints contest goes to Pan American. Interestingly, thanks to recent mergers and acquisitions, three of the six top offending airlines--People Express, New York Air and Continental--now make up an enlarged Continental Airlines. (And when Republic Airlines was bought by Northwest, complaints against Northwest soared.)

In last place (fewest complaints, with .25 complaints per 100,000 passengers) has been awarded, for the third year in a row, to Hawaii-based Aloha Airlines. (Other airlines that registered complaint ratios under 1 per 100,000 passengers include Alaska Airlines, Southwest and Delta.)

"We allow our passenger contact people the opportunity to take on additional responsibilities," says Delta spokesman Vince Durocher. "That way they can handle problems on the spot and the customer is immediately satisfied. Going through layers of airline bureaucracy not only doesn't handle the problem, but fosters those kinds of complaint letters that only hurt us in the long run."

(Delta, for example, is one of the few airlines still employing "red coats," the passenger service agents at airports who roam departure and arrival gates and who can fix most passenger problems on the ground.)

Monitor Complaints

"There's no magic about our complaint stats," boasts Alaska Airlines spokesman Lou Cancelmi. "We're a smaller airline, and thus we feel the need to monitor our complaints almost microscopically," he says.

"If we get a letter that the pilot's in-flight commentary was inaudible or the coffee was cold on a particular flight, those letters are shared directly with staffers as well as with senior management.

"We recognize that we are in a service business. In our personnel-selection process we have the luxury of screening our prospective employees very carefully."

The argument can be made, however, that one of the reasons airlines like Aloha have scored so well in the complaint statistics 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.

To be sure, 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 and weather that result in deteriorating cabin staff as well as passenger attitudes.

Airlines such as TWA registered 4.13 complaints per 100,000 passengers (up from 3.02 complaints in 1985). United, on the other hand, registered 2.67 complaints per 100,000, down from 3.48 complaints in 1985.

"These complaint figures may not be an accurate reflection of all complaints in the airline industry," cautions Hoyte Decker, DOT assistant director for consumer affairs. "Carriers are not required to report the number of complaints they get directly to us. We only report the complaints sent to us directly by passengers who felt that their complaints weren't properly handled by the airlines. These complaints represent the most desperate cases."

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