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Latest Airline Survey Shows Customer Complaints Soared in 2020

A Southwest jet flying with its wheels down.
Southwest finished first in the latest Airline Quality Rating survey conducted by Wichita State University.

Even as travelers diminished, complaints about airline service worsened during the pandemic.

The latest Airline Quality Rating survey from Wichita State University shows the nation’s major airlines improved in almost all areas last year.

But as Dean Headley, one of the study’s authors, said, that’s not surprising considering how the pandemic affected air travel in 2020.

“Almost all of the 10 airlines that we looked at did very well with being on time and handling bags and denied boardings, as you would expect: Nobody was flying,” said Headley, an emeritus associate professor of marketing at WSU. “It makes it a lot easier to be good when there's not enough volume to really bother you too much.” 

Passenger volume in 2020 dropped more than 60 percent as the pandemic threw the airline industry into disarray. And that led to a record number of customer complaints, from 8,050 in 2019 to 34,663 last year. More than 80 percent of the complaints concerned refunds.

“The customer complaints were the bad thing, and that hit every airline,” Headley said. “So the story really was who recovered the quickest from all those complaints that were coming in about people with canceled flights.”

And that was Southwest, which had the fewest customer complaints. That helped it finish first in the overall ratings, followed by Allegiant, Delta and Alaska airlines. Frontier – which saw its customer complaints per 100,000 passengers soar from 2.57 in 2019 to 49.3 last year – finished last. Hawaiian Airline had the best on-time performance while Allegiant mishandled the fewest pieces of luggage.

Several airlines reported zero denied boardings for the year, no doubt related to lower travel volumes. The number of people flying, though, is starting to increase. Several national forecasts are predicting a surge in airline travel this summer. Officials with Wichita’s Eisenhower National Airport said last week that several restaurants and concession areas in the terminal had reopened as passenger volumes increased.

Headley said airlines are still well below 2019 passenger levels, “But if you look at what's happening in the first few months of 2021, we're looking at a million to a million and a half passengers a day flying somewhere. That's going to get the volumes back pretty quick.”

He said one question that will be answered this summer is what safety measures – like facemasks, proof of vaccine or negative COVID-19 tests – airlines will require. Headley said a lot of safety protocols instituted after 9/11, such as taking off your shoes when you go through security, are still around.

“Some of that's going to stick,” Headley said of current public health rules. “We just don't know how much, and each airline will have to figure out how much they think their customer base will tolerate. “They're going to have to balance all that out that maximizes their revenue.”
Copyright 2021 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Tom is the Director of News and Public Affairs. He joins KMUW after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle in a variety of reporting and editing roles.
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