New Report: Airlines’ Refund Policies & Scheduling Problems Irk Consumers

Arizona PIRG Education Fund finds flyers’ complaints increased by 460 percent from February 2020 to August 2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic turned life upside down in early 2020 and commercial flights came to a near-halt, the U.S. government gave the airline industry $50 billion. Since then, despite surviving because of tax dollars, the airlines repeatedly have canceled and delayed flights, denied refunds and failed at customer service, according to complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

NotFirst Class: Flyer complaints soar as airlines cancel flights, deny refunds, ruin plans, a new report released by the Arizona PIRG (Arizona Public Interest Research Group) Education Fund, analyzed more than 200,000 DOT complaints going back to 2016 and found the airline industry is failing its customers.

According to Diane E. Brown, Executive Director of the Arizona PIRG Education Fund, “Taxpayer money was given to the airline industry to stabilize its finances; however, the airlines’ profits are instead flying high at the expense of too many travelers not even getting off the ground.”

The DOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection’s monthly reports detail how consumers are clamoring for refunds for flights canceled during the pandemic and are upset about several other issues, notably understaffing. Fewer workers and fewer flights mean each changed, delayed, or canceled route affects a higher percentage of flights and flyers. While these problems are a direct result of the airlines’ actions, the companies generally refuse to issue refunds to many of their customers.

Key findings of the Arizona PIRG Education Fund’s analysis:

  • The airline industry has failed to adequately deal with customers whose flights were canceled since March 2020. The most common complaint category for consumers was refunds.
  • Southwest and Allegiant were the airlines with the fewest complaints per 100,000 flyers since May 2020, indicating they likely dealt with the issues caused by the pandemic better than others. Frontier, United, and Hawaiian had the most complaints per 100,000 flyers.
  • On-time arrival records vary widely. Delta, Hawaiian, and Alaska Airlines have been the most punctual since June 2020. Allegiant and JetBlue have been the least punctual.
  • Punctuality dropped significantly in the summer of 2021 among seven of the 10 largest airlines.
  • Among the 16 busiest U.S. airports, San Francisco International Airport and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport have the best on-time departure records since May 2020; Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport, and Denver International Airport have the worst.

The Arizona PIRG Education Fund’s report offers recommendations for consumers and points out that airlines, municipalities, and the federal government can each make changes to improve the experience of flyers. The organization encouraged consumers to voice their concerns, particularly by sending an email to DOTExecSec@DOT.gov.

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