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In Year Lost to Pandemic, Airline Complaints Surged by 400 Percent

In Year Lost to Pandemic, Airline Complaints Surged by 400 Percent
Joe Cortez

As the COVID-19 pandemic grounded flights and decimated airline profits, complaints were on the rise. According to the 2021 Wichita State University Airline Quality Ratings, consumers filed 400 percent more complaints, while airline scores decreased by as much as 800 percent.

Coming into 2020, airlines were riding record highs in profits and performance. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened – and disrupted the entire industry from the top down. One year later, the world is seeing how the novel Coronavirus outbreak hurt more than just profitability. Data from the 2021 Wichita State University Airline Quality Ratings shows consumer complaints skyrocketed, while overall airline ratings dropped.

Complaints Increased by 400 Percent, While Airline Scores Dropped as Much as 800 Percent

According to the report, complaints by flyers increased by nearly 400 percent, driven primarily by frustration over refund requests and cancelled flights. Among all complaints, the overwhelming majority – 83 percent of all complaints – were around refund grievances. Across carriers, airlines fielded 11.75 complaints per 100,000 flyers, compared to 1.06 per 100,000 flyers in 2019.

Frontier Airlines had the highest complaint rate among all rated airlines, receiving 49.30 per 100,000 passengers. The massive number of complaints against the Denver-based airline caused the Colorado Attorney General to request a formal investigation from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

On the converse, Southwest Airlines had the lowest complaint rate, with only 2.64 per 100,000 passengers. Researchers say while there were a significant increase in complaints, many airlines were able to quell the outrage with social distancing policies, improved cleaning protocols and a noted improvement in performance.

“If you did travel by air in 2020, chances are good that you had good performance by the airline. Better on-time performance, fewer mishandled bags and very few denied boardings were all to be expected with many fewer people flying in the system,” said Dr. Dean Headley in a press release, who was one of the researchers in the Wichita State University study. “The airlines had a big challenge in working through refund issues presented by canceled travel plans, but most were able to respond and quell customer concerns in a timely manner.”

Overall, Southwest Airlines took the top ranking in the 2020 study, with the researchers noting their score remained nearly flat compared to 2019, when they ranked in third. All other carrier’s scores dropped significantly, ranging from 40 percent to up to 800 percent. Last year’s top carrier, ultra-low-cost-carrier Allegiant Air, ranked in second this year, followed by Delta Air Lines, Alaska Airlines and Spirit Airlines. At the bottom of the list was United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and Frontier Airlines.

Southwest Picks Up Second Honors of 2021 Research

Southwest earning the top marks from the 2021 Airline Quality Ratings report marks the second time the airline received a high rating this year. In the WalletHub 2021 Best Airlines analysis, Southwest Airlines ranked in the top five among rated carriers, while also earning the title of most reliable airline.

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