Shrinking seats and overbooking fuel surge in US airline passengers’ complaints

Although airlines are getting better at arriving on time and reducing baggage mishandling incidents, passengers are complaining more and getting less happy, as shown by a report on airline quality by researchers at Purdue University and Wichita State University analyzing the 14 largest U.S. The companies covered by the report were Air Tran, Alaska, American, American Eagle, Delta, ExpressJet, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, SkyWest, Southwest, United, US Airways, and Virgin America.

The shrinking size of seats, crowding more people into a plane, ticket holders being turned away because of overbooking, these are the most prominent reasons for the passengers’ discontent. As a result, passengers are also complaining more – the number of complaints filed with the Department of Transportation increased by one-fifth in 2012. 

‘‘The way airlines have taken 130-seat airplanes and expanded them to 150 seats to squeeze out more revenue I think is finally catching up with them,’’ said Dean Headley, a business professor at Wichita State University who has co-written the annual report for 23 years. ‘‘People are saying, ‘Look, I don’t fit here. Do something about this.’ At some point airlines can’t keep shrinking seats to put more people into the same tube.’’

The goal of putting more people in a plane is so intensely pursued that airlines are also thinking of shrinking the already tight and uncomfortable on-board toilets. Yet the researchers think that, while the number of complaints and disgruntled fliers will continue to increase, consumers will continue to fly.


While the planes are getting bigger to be able to carry more passengers, the number of flights has been reduced, thus causing an increase in the number of consumers being turned away at the boarding gate. The rate for ticket holders being denied a seat went up to 0.97 denials per 10,000 passengers in 2012 from 0.78 in 2011.

The bigger problem is that all flights are being overbooked. That means consumers can no longer be calmed down by being offered cash, free tickets or other forms of compensation to give up their seat willingly. As the next flight and the next are also full, there isn’t really a possibility to have them flown to their destination on a different plane

The carrier with the highest involuntary denied boardings rate was SkyWest. However, there are airlines that employ a completely different strategy – JetBlue and Virgin America made o point in avoiding denied boardings. With rates as low as 0.01 and 0.07 respectively, they were last year’s industry leaders in this regard.

The total number of complaints in 2012 was of  11,445. Not only was the overall number higher, the rate of complaints per 100,000 passengers also surged from 1.19 in the previous year to 1.43. United Airlines was the carrier with the highest consumer complaint rate – 4.24 complaints per 100,000 passengers, twice as high as in 2011. Southwest was the airline at the opposing end of the top, with a 0.25 rate.

The good news is that the industry average for on-time arrival rate was 81.8% of flights, slightly better than the 80% figure of 2011, continuing the up trend of recent years which has been supported by the carriers’ decision to cut the number of flights. Hawaiian Airlines recorded the best on-time performance record, 93.4% in 2012, while ExpressJet and American Airlines had the worst results – 76.9%.

The rate of mishandled bags was also significantly reduced, the reason being the decision of charging fees for extra bags or for any bag, in some case. As a result, passengers are checking in fewer bags and prefer to carry them onto the planes when allowed to. The industry’s mishandled bag rate was of 3.07 in 2012, down from 3.35 bags in 2011.

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge