Airlines gave consumers less to complain about in July, according to government statistics. Nonetheless, complaints were way up.
The just-released report on July complaints and airline performance from the U.S. Department of Transportation showed that only three flights were delayed more than three hours on airport runways, compared with 161 flights for the same month last year.
The report also showed that the rate of mishandled-luggage reports dropped by about 7% and the rate of passengers denied boarding because of overbooked planes fell by nearly 26%.
But there were 1,094 complaints lodged against airlines in the U.S. in July, as opposed to 827 in the same month last year — a 32% jump.
Most of the complaints this year were filed by passengers upset over flight delays and cancellations, plus problems with baggage, reservations, ticketing and boarding — the very areas where there has been improvement, according to the report.
The three flights that were delayed more than three hours were all operated by American Eagle Airlines, departing from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on July 23 when storms brought heavy rain and wind gusts to the area.
Passenger-rights activists attribute the better on-time performance to fines imposed by the Obama administration against airlines that leave passengers sitting on a tarmac for three hours or more. The fines of up to $27,500 per passenger were adopted in December and took effect April 29.
So why the increase in complaints?
Passenger-rights groups believe the increase is partly because of growing frustration over the increased number of airline fees added over the last two years.
"Passengers are really fatigued over the whole experience of flying," said Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Assn. for Airline Passenger Rights, a nonprofit consumer rights group based in Washington.
He also said the rate of mishandled baggage might have dropped simply because the overall number of passengers has dropped over the last two years, making it easier for the airlines to handle the workload with fewer mistakes.
But passenger-rights groups also suggest complaints are up because the Transportation Department has made it easier to file grievances. In January, the agency unveiled a website (airconsumer.dot.gov) where passengers can file comments about airline services.
Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, had another theory about the rise in the complaints. She said passengers were filing more grievances with the agency because "they don't get anywhere with the airlines."
"Most of the time, the airlines don't respond," she said.
David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Assn. — the trade group that represents most major airlines — declined to comment on why the complaints were up in July.
"Both delays and cancellations can vary significantly from month to month and year to year for a variety of reasons," Castelveter said, "including weather and airspace congestion. In every situation, airlines remain committed to providing stellar customer service."