Shocker! United Airlines complaints surge, almost overtaking American Airlines in November


It almost happened.

American Airlines’ three-year losing streak came within just one case of being broken by United Airlines in October as overall complaints jumped 56 percent from a year ago.

American accounted for 6.30 percent of our cases for the month. United, which was in third place for October with only 3.23 percent of our grievances, leapfrogged to second place, with 6.05 percent.

We recorded 413 consumer complaints last month, down almost 5 percent from the previous month. For the year, we’ve received 3,920 grievances, up 21 percent from 2016.

A few disclaimers: We only count cases received through our help form. These are the most difficult, intractable problems, and they represent a tiny fraction of the overall complaints about a company. Many more questions are answered informally by our response team or through our forums. Often, consumers come to us when they’ve tried everything, up to and including litigation.

Our resident data scientists don’t weight these numbers for boardings or number of customers. That’s because we have companies from various industries represented here. However, these numbers are reflected in other complaint data, notably the Department of Transportation’s airline complaint numbers.

Here are last month’s complaints:

November
Rank Top 25 Companies Total Complaints Percent
1 American Airlines 26 6.30%
2 United Airlines 25 6.05%
3 Delta Air Lines 14 3.39%
4 Expedia 13 3.15%
5 Amazon.com 8 1.94%
6 Spirit Airlines 7 1.69%
7 Airberlin 6 1.45%
8 Turkish Airlines 6 1.45%
9 Air Canada 5 1.21%
10 Allianz 5 1.21%
11 British Airways 5 1.21%
12 Justfly.com 5 1.21%
13 Lufthansa 5 1.21%
14 Marriott 5 1.21%
15 Verizon 5 1.21%
16 Comcast 4 0.97%
17 Hertz Rent a Car 4 0.97%
18 Priceline 4 0.97%
19 Sears Holdings 4 0.97%
20 Walmart 4 0.97%
21 AT&T 3 0.73%
22 Aeromexico 3 0.73%
23 Airbnb 3 0.73%
24 Booking.com (Priceline) 3 0.73%
25 Dollar Rent A Car (Hertz) 3 0.73%
Total Cases: 413
Last Month: 433
Percent Difference: -4.84%
Total Cases November 2016: 264
Percent Difference Year Ago: 56.44%
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Here are the previous month’s numbers:


October
Rank Top 25 Companies Total Complaints Percent
1 American Airlines 51 11.78%
2 Delta Air Lines 18 4.16%
3 United Airlines 14 3.23%
4 Hertz Rent a Car 10 2.31%
5 British Airways 9 2.08%
6 Southwest Airlines 9 2.08%
7 Expedia 8 1.85%
8 DirecTV (AT&T) 7 1.62%
9 Airberlin 6 1.39%
10 Marriott 6 1.39%
11 Royal Caribbean (RCCL) 6 1.39%
12 Travelocity (Expedia) 6 1.39%
13 Carnival 5 1.15%
14 Comcast 5 1.15%
15 Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) 5 1.15%
16 Walmart 5 1.15%
17 Air Canada 4 0.92%
18 Airbnb 4 0.92%
19 Budget Car Rental (Avis) 4 0.92%
20 Enterprise Rent-A-Car 4 0.92%
21 HomeAway (Expedia) 4 0.92%
22 Hotwire 4 0.92%
23 Lufthansa 4 0.92%
24 Norwegian (Norwegian Air Shuttle) 4 0.92%
25 Turkish Airlines 4 0.92%
Total Cases: 433
Last Month: 390
Percent Difference: 9.93%
Total Cases October 2016: 315
Percent Difference Year Ago: 37.46%

And here are our year-to-date numbers:

Cases Year- to-Date
Rank Top 25 Companies Total Complaints Percent
1 American Airlines 412 10.49%
2 United Airlines 230 5.86%
3 Delta Air Lines 123 3.13%
4 Expedia 88 2.24%
5 British Airways 80 2.04%
6 Enterprise Rent-A-Car 71 1.81%
7 Southwest Airlines 56 1.43%
8 Hertz Rent a Car 55 1.40%
9 Amazon.com 52 1.32%
10 Spirit Airlines 50 1.27%
11 Airbnb 48 1.22%
12 AT&T 44 1.12%
13 Lufthansa 42 1.07%
14 Airberlin 39 0.99%
15 Turkish Airlines 36 0.92%
16 Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) 35 0.89%
17 WOW Air 35 0.89%
18 Air Canada 34 0.87%
19 Justfly.com 29 0.74%
20 Travelocity (Expedia) 27 0.69%
21 Norwegian (Norwegian Air Shuttle) 26 0.66%
22 Comcast 25 0.64%
23 Marriott 25 0.64%
24 DirecTV (AT&T) 24 0.61%
25 Avis Car Rental 23 0.59%
Total Cases 1/1/2017-12/1/2017: 3,926
Total Cases 1/1/2016-12/1/2016: 3,249
Percent Difference: 20.84%

So what’s going on with United?

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It’s difficult to tell. The complaints we’ve received look fairly standard. I notice one or two higher-profile customer service issues for the month, including this troubling case of a disabled passenger sitting in an emergency exit row. But nothing out of the ordinary.

A surge like this often means one thing: Behind the scenes, the airline has implemented new policies designed to increase revenues — an understandable move — but that passengers find upsetting. While it may not be a new fee, it could be a memo sent to ticket agents informing them that they must enforce a rule more stringently. You know — “no waivers, no favors.”

If United continues on this flight path, it may overtake American next month. Now that would be a shocker.

As always, if you have a problem — any problem — please don’t forget to file a complaint with us so that we can help you. And, so we can count it.


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 chris@elliott.org.

  • deemery

    Off-topic: UA doesn’t fly 747s any more. (I’ll miss the big bird!)

  • I think that was a tribute, courtesy of our production department. ;-)

  • deemery

    :-) (I had a couple memorable trips on the top deck, including one SFO-HKG, where we could see the Pacific Coast mountain range for about 3 hours out the right side windows. Denali was visible although it was getting dark. (This was November, when it’s rare to see anything besides clouds.) The woman in the seat next to me dug out her watercolor set, and I shot an entire roll of film. http://www.davebert.photos/Hong-Kong-01/roll3.html While in Hong Kong, I bought my first digital camera.

  • MF

    I believe that the last UA 747 flight was last month Hawaii to SFO.

  • RichardII

    The ATC call sign for that flight was ua747

  • Byron Cooper

    None of this is statistically significant. You have a sample size of 433. To determine the margin of error, we need to know how large a sample these posts represent to determine a margin of error. We could have a better idea if an actual survey was sent out. Then based on the response rate and sample size, a margin of error could be calculated.

  • NVskier

    My husband and I just flew the new United Polaris class from SFO to SIN, 17.5 hours. We were more than underwhelmed and disappointed for many reasons which I detailed in an email to UAA customer service. We had paid $3117 for his one way ticket and mine was using FF miles. United apologized and awarded us travel certificates that value $700. I thought this was fair and reasonable. I just hope they get their act together soon before I am forced to go to another airline. Our return flight is from HGK on Singapore Business and I trust it will be better than our experience in Polaris!

  • BubbaJoe123

    So, United complaints surged from 1 in 779,000 United passengers complaining to 1 in 436,000, while AA complaints dropped from 1 in 255,000 to 1 in 500,000.

    These numbers are so tiny that it’s almost impossible to determine anything from them. A slight change in how elliott.org comes up if someone Googles for “united complaint” vs. “American complaint” could readily do it, for example.

  • Michael__K

    The number of monthly complaints against United is off by only 4 or 5 complaints from their prior year-to-date average (20.5 complaints per month). If anything, the surprise is that AA went from an average of 38.6 per month, including 51 the previous month, down to 26. It’ll be interesting to see if this reduction persists in future months or if proves to be a one-time anomaly. The DOT will post their November complaints data at the end of the second week in January, so that would be a useful point of corroboration, to see if they are got fewer complaints as well, or not.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Better headline would have been: “American Complaints Plunge in November.”

  • Travelnut

    I flew Polaris class this summer to Berlin. I really liked it; at the same time, while the seats were nice the meals & service were about the same as other BC flights. I’ll be in Polaris again in a few weeks, so I will see if the experience is consistent.

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