Passenger Rights

As Airline Profits Spike, Complaints Soar

It’s an increasingly familiar storyline: As the airlines’ profits spike, consumer satisfaction plunges. But there’s at least one airline that delivers both profits and satisfaction.

If you follow the aviation press, you can’t have escaped the steady drumbeat of headlines boasting full flights and record profits. The International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group, recently upgraded its industry financial forecast, projecting a $15.7 billion profit for the North American carriers alone. For the airlines and their shareholders, the news has been unrelentingly upbeat.

But a report issued this week by the DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics suggests that the picture is considerably less rosy for the airlines’ customers. Even as the airlines crow about their financial and operational successes, they’re racking up record complaints from aggrieved travelers.

For the first six months of 2015, travelers lodged 9,542 complaints against the airlines, an increase of 20.3 percent over the same period in 2014.

By a wide margin, the number one cause of complaints was flight problems (cancellations, delays, and misconnections), up 15 percent for the current period. Baggage-related issues were the second-largest category of complaints, increasing 7 percent year over year. Customer service complaints increased 35 percent.

Among the top five categories, fares-related complaints registered the largest increase, at 194 percent. According to the DOT’s categorization scheme, fares complaints relate to “incorrect or incomplete information about fares, discount fare conditions and availability, overcharges, fare increases and level of fares in general.” Presumably that would include dissatisfaction or confusion regarding the profusion of add-on fees increasingly charged by the airlines in addition to their base fares.

As the airline industry has consolidated, it’s become an increasingly familiar storyline: As the airlines’ profits spike, consumer satisfaction plunges. The facts would seem to suggest that profitability and consumer satisfaction are inherently at odds. But there’s at least one airline that disproves that dispiriting conclusion. Southwest is among the industry’s most profitable carriers, and its customers were among the happiest.

That’s a lesson other airlines should take to heart, before their customers’ ire begins to take a toll on profits.

Reader Reality Check

How has your satisfaction with the airlines increased or decreased over the years?

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By Tim Winship

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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