With thousands of airline cancellations leaving travelers stranded during this year’s busy holiday travel season, it’s no secret that things are bad in the skies. But according to a new report from United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG)—a consumer advocacy group dedicated to protecting the public interest—that’s only the beginning of the story. “The airline industry is failing its customers and the country as a whole,” says Jacob van Cleef, a PIRG consumer watchdog associate. “They took our money to stabilize their wallets. Now, their profits are flying high at the expense of travelers not getting off the ground.”
U.S. PIRG analyzed more than 200,000 complaints filed with the Department of Transportation (DOT) going back to 2016. The report looked at the volume of complaints, the types of complaints, the frequency of complaints for airlines, frequency of flights arriving on time for airlines and the frequency of airports getting flights to depart on time. The results are sobering.
The report, entitled “Not First Class” shows that there’s been a 460% increase in complaints over pre-pandemic numbers. Sporadic mass flight cancellations and delays are becoming the new normal. The airlines are failing at customer service. And hundreds of thousands of consumers are still trying to get a whopping $10 billion in refunds for flights canceled last year.
The report also showed which airlines are doing the best and the worst. Since May 2020, Southwest and Allegiant were the airlines with the fewest complaints per 100,000 flyers. The worst: Frontier, United and Hawaiian, which had the most complaints.
Airports were analyzed, too. The report look at the 16 busiest U.S. airports in the U.S. and found that San Francisco International Airport and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport have the best on-time departure records. The worst: Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport and Denver International Airport.
The Department of Transportation says it is trying to hold airlines accountable and find ways to speed up refunds. So what can you do in the meantime if you’re trying to get a refund from the airlines? Mike Litt, who directs U.S. PIRG’s national campaign to protect consumers, has some tips.
Wait to Cancel. Let the airlines be the bad guys. “You are entitled to a full cash refund if the airline cancels, makes a significant schedule change or significantly delays a flight, so wait as long as possible to cancel,” says Litt. The lesson here: Wait as long as you can before you decide not to take a flight. If you cancel your flight, the airline doesn’t owe you anything. If the airline cancels it, they need to refund your money.
Be Persistent: Don’t assume that the airline will give you your money back. Airlines are notorious for trying to offer vouchers with expiration dates instead of a full cash refund, even though the DOT has scolded the airlines for this behavior. You should insist on a refund if the airline cancels your flight. A note: Even if you already accepted a voucher for a flight that was canceled by the airline, you are still legally entitled to a refund and can go back to the airline. Another good piece of advice: Be nice to the customer service agent. “The nicer you are to the worker, the more likely you are to be successful,” says Litt.
Dispute the Charges: Aren’t getting anywhere? Ask your credit card company for help disputing the charge—it might have better luck getting your money back.
File a Complaint: If you feel that you’ve been mistreated, file a complaint with the Department of Transportation. And don’t think it won’t help. “Complaints can lead to enforcement action against an airline when a serious violation of the law has occurred. Complaints may also be the basis for rulemaking actions,” says the DOT. You can also call the DOT directly at 202-366-4000 or email secretary Pete Buttigieg at DOTExecSec@dot.gov.
Sign a Petition: There are several petitions out there that are helping consumers have a voice. Jennifer Stansfield, who had to cancel a bucket-list trip to Italy and could only get a voucher from United, started a Change.org petition, while U.S. PIRG has its own petition.