Complaints surge in December as 2016 wraps up on a high (or maybe low) note

The number of consumer complaints received by this site surged last month, with a total of 293 queries, our fourth-busiest month of 2016.

American Airlines retained its title as the most complained-about company in December and for the year. United Airlines, Expedia and Southwest Airlines also were strong performers for the month.

For the year, American, United and Expedia were the most complained-about companies.

As a reminder, we typically receive only the most difficult cases through the site. The grievances represent a tiny fraction of the overall problems with a company. Often, consumers come to us when they’ve tried everything, up to and including litigation.

Here’s what December looked like:

Company Complaints Percent
American Airlines 32 10.92%
United Airlines 14 4.78%
Expedia 12 4.10%
Southwest Airlines 11 3.75%
AT&T 8 2.73%
Air France 6 2.05%
Avis 6 2.05%
Hertz 6 2.05%
Apple 5 1.71%
Enterprise 5 1.71%

Here’s November:

Company Complaints Percent
American Airlines 15 5.79%
Enterprise 13 5.02%
United Airlines 12 4.63%
Expedia 10 3.86%
Turkish Airlines 6 2.32%
British Airways 5 1.93%
Lufthansa 5 1.93%
AT&T 4 1.54%
Delta Air Lines 4 1.54%
Oceania 4 1.54%

Here’s our 2016 list:

Company Complaints Percent
American Airlines 396 11.21%
United Airlines 185 5.23%
Expedia 156 4.41%
Delta Air Lines 95 2.69%
Enterprise 93 2.63%
Hertz 77 2.18%
British Airways 67 1.90%
Southwest Airlines 62 1.75%
Avis 61 1.73%
AT&T 47 1.33%

We’ve had a total of 3,534 cases in 2016. I’m going to do a deep dive on this list tomorrow and expand on the list.

What do these numbers mean?

✓ American comes first! It’s hard to say exactly why the airline is so dominant in the complaints department, but I remember that American and US Airways were both leaders in the DOT complaints before they merged. It makes sense that they would dominate after their corporate marriage.

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✓ Overall, people love to complain about airlines. Even Delta, which has embraced the JetBlue customer service model (“We’re better because we suck less”), isn’t immune to a blizzard of complaints. Could it just be an industry thing? Hard to say.

✓ For December, technology companies like Apple and AT&T had a strong showing. This could be because of the holidays, when tech gifts are often given. Then again, AT&T made our annual list, finishing in 10th place.

I’d love to hear your take on this list — besides your opinion that we should be weighing the complaints against the number of customers (asked and answered).

Why do you think we have thousands of complaints about these companies? Is there anything you think we can do to make sure they don’t repeat their dismal performance in 2017?

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • SierraRose 49

    I’m wondering how many of the airline complaints (mostly the legacy carriers: American, United, Delta) occur because consumers purchase their tickets through an online travel agency (Expedia, CheapOAir, Travelocity, etc.) and not directly from the airline. It seems many of the airline complaints also involve an OTA. Or are they the complaints that get posted the most often? Just curious.

  • Jeff W.

    The common theme as to why travel companies dominate the list is resolution often requires e-mails or phone conversations. And your issue may be about location X and you already home in location Y. Plus, if you have a problem with American, you can’t go to the American Airlines store and talk to a real person who can best resolve your issue. They are all at the airport, local offices no longer exist. And even if you are at the airport, the agents there are often overworked and limited to set scripts, but still are more helpful than an 800 number. Same for rental car companies.

    What strikes me is that you have your fair share of airlines and car rental companies, but no hotels. Either not enough people complain about hotels or for the most part, those companies remember they are in the hospitality business.

    As for AT&T, not sure which part of their business is getting your complaints. But no Verizon or Comcast in there is quite surprising. Everyone loves to complain about the cable company. And I agree, Apple is an anomaly for December because of the gift-giving season.

  • Steve Rabin

    I think for the ‘legacy’ airlines the number of complaints is tied to the last major merger they made…AA recently merged with USAir, and they are still working out the kinks. UA and CO merged about 5 years ago, so they are just now coming up to speed, and the last merger the DL went through was with Northwest several years ago, so they have had time to smooth things over.

    Not saying they are at all good at preventing issues, just a race for (slightly above) the bottom.

    AA is missing a marketing opportunity here: “Let’s make American great again”. :-)

  • BubbaJoe123

    Just in case anybody does care about the airline complaint rates vs. passenger volumes, they actually don’t change the story very much.

    Complaints per 1M passengers:
    AA: 2.5
    UA: 1.4
    DL: 0.6
    SW: 0.4

    United looks a little worse than on the raw numbers, but the ratios among SW, DL, and AA don’t change much.

  • Mike

    I’m kinda shocked to not see that inept Philadelphia company Comcast on this list. My last couple of calls with them were doozies…

  • MarkKelling

    I have found that going to a local Comcast store front and talking to them there seems to result in much better … results. While not as convenient as picking up the phone, in the long run it results in less time spent correcting the issue, at least in my experience.

  • Mike

    I’d have to agree – The times I’ve gone to the “storefront” I’ve had good interactions. Even my last couple of phone calls haven’t been terrible – however, their live chat is beyond terrible.

  • PsyGuy

    “We’re better because we suck less”, that’s awesome, my quote for the new year (Why are you my favorite client, you suck less than the others).

    American and United should merge into one super airline. Then they can just ditch their customer service department all together.

    What did Comcast give you to not make the list this year, better be more than free HBO.

  • PsyGuy

    I’m more shocked, what would be even more shocking is if Comcast started an airline.

  • PsyGuy

    I agree, but the wait time can be 40 minutes to an hour.

  • PsyGuy

    I also learned recently, that the storefront employees have less access to promotions.

  • PsyGuy

    Apple was an anomaly because of the recent release of the iPhone 7.

  • PsyGuy

    Good point. I wonder what would happen if American went to just selling tickets on their own website.

  • jim6555

    The complaints about Southwest Airlines increased in December. Southwest only sell tickets through it’s own website and telephone number.

  • MarkKelling

    The wait time on the phone is a similar number of minutes. :-)

  • DepartureLevel

    Is it only me that feels that the “quality” of life working on the other end of the phone lines or on the other side of store or ticket counters has much to be desired ? Rare to find someone who is willing and able to tackle a problem – they are either unsympathetic or inefficient or both. Since no one wants to admit being so, the easiest way to deal with problems (it seems) is to just say “sorry”, “no”, “nothing we can do” …or at best pass the buck to someone else – translation – “get lost, I don’t wan’t to deal with it, just go away”. What a sorry state of affairs. The consumer has to advocate for themselves and beg for help.

  • SierraRose 49

    Yes, Jim. We fly SW more than any other airline, and yes, we book through its website. Most, not all, of the airline complaints Jan.-Dec. 2016 involved the three US legacy carriers – American, United, Delta. And it seems many of the airline complaints we’ve read at over the past year — but not all — involve an OTA.

  • PsyGuy

    Yeah, but I can put it on speaker phone and check the Elliott site for snarky comments while I’m waiting.

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