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Turbulent times: Airline complaints skyrocket, despite fewer travelers

Total airline complaints increased from about 15,000 in 2019 to more than 60,000 in 2022.
Posted at 10:55 AM, Mar 30, 2023

A new consumer watchdog report shows that airline complaints nearly quadrupled from 2019 through 2022, even while air travel remained below pre-pandemic levels.

The U.S. Department of Transportation recently released its 2022 report on air travel and it showed there were 60,732 complaints last year, compared to just 15,342 in 2019.

However, the 2022 report didn't include statistics from the month of December because there were too many complaints to tally from the Christmas week fiasco that forced thousands of cancellations nationwide.

An analysis by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund found the top reasons for complaints were refunds — or lack thereof — flight delays, cancellations and lost luggage.

American Airlines planes.
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Airlines canceled more than 190,000, or 2.7%, of all flights scheduled last year. Excluding COVID-ravaged 2020, that was the largest percentage of cancellations since the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. On top of that, airlines mishandled nearly 3,000 bags.

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly exacerbated problems in the travel industry, but a multi-billion-dollar bailout from the U.S. government aimed to keep airlines afloat and workers employed.

Airlines were instructed to not lay off any employees, but many pushed workers into retirement or offered buyout packages, and staffing plunged 20% in 2020. It didn't fully rebound to pre-pandemic levels until last summer, but problems in the industry persisted.

“The airlines have made short-sighted decisions about staffing, scheduling and technology,” said Teresa Murray, consumer watchdog at U.S. PIRG Education Fund. “Bad weather can be a factor in cancellations but storms don’t treat customers poorly: Airlines do. We wouldn’t see this avalanche of complaints if airlines took better care of travelers.”

With the summer vacation season just around the corner and the pandemic essentially a thing of the past, it leaves many travelers wondering when — or if — the industry will fully recover.