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Gripes Against Airlines Grow

Passenger complaints jumped 17% last year from 2004. At the top of the list: lost luggage.

April 03, 2006|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Travelers increasingly are unhappy with airlines, ranking lost luggage among their biggest complaints, according to an annual survey by university researchers that rates carriers' quality.

"They're less on time, they're losing bags at a rate they've never done before, and people are complaining again," said Dean Hedley, coauthor of the study being released today.

Passenger complaints increased 17% last year from 2004, and the rate of mishandled baggage jumped to 6.06 per 1,000 passengers in 2005 from 4.83 a year earlier.

Among the study's conclusions:

* Southwest Airlines had the lowest rate of complaints, 0.18 per 100,000 passengers; US Airways had the highest, 1.86.

* ATA had the highest rate of denied boardings, 2.75 per 10,000 passengers; JetBlue had the lowest at 0.

* AirTran had the best baggage handling rate, mishandling 3.43 bags per 1,000 passengers; Atlantic Southeast had the worst rate, at 17.41.

Customer satisfaction last year was the lowest since 2000, said Hedley, an associate professor at Wichita State University in Kansas. That's when delays, cancellations and anger over being left stranded in terminals reached a peak, in part because of weather woes and passenger volume.

These days, Hedley said, the number of passengers is returning to levels before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but there are 200,000 fewer airline employees to serve them.

Intense competition from low-fare airlines and high fuel prices have forced many traditional airlines to cut back or charge passengers for amenities. Many carriers no longer serve meals on flights. Some charge for pillows. And there's a price now for overweight or extra bags.

"Airlines know their consumers," Hedley said. "I'm not sure they know how far they can push them."

Airline industry spokesman David Castelveter said carriers knew that their service had suffered and were trying to improve.

Carriers have installed ticketing kiosks and machines that read boarding passes at the gates and have added flight delay information to their websites, Castelveter said. But airlines do not have control over all the things that annoy passengers, said Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Assn., which lobbies for the carriers.

"They're dealing with weather delays, air traffic control delays and new security measures," he said. "You've got airplanes misconnecting, passengers misconnecting and baggage misconnecting. That all translates into unhappy passengers."

The Airline Quality Rating study is based on Transportation Department statistics for airlines that carry at least 1% of the passengers who flew domestically last year. The research is sponsored by the University of Nebraska at Omaha's aviation institute and Wichita State.

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