Yes, American Airlines, you can hate your customers and be loved by your shareholders. Or can you?


This just in: Reader complaints surged 24 percent last month from a year ago.

Can you guess which company topped the list?

That’s right, it’s the same one that has led our list since we’ve been counting — American Airlines. In a moment, I’ll tell you why its dubious leadership position is secure.

With 41 cases, or 11 percent of our total complaints, American had nearly twice the grievances of the number two company, United Airlines.

A quick reminder that we only count cases received through our help form. These are the most difficult, intractable problems, and the grievances represent a tiny fraction of the overall complaints with a company. Often, consumers come to us when they’ve tried everything, up to and including litigation.

Our number of cases for the month surged almost 4 percent from August to 388. For the year, we’re up about 13 percent, to 3,071 cases.

Here are last month’s numbers:

 

September 2017
Rank Top 25 Companies Total Complaints Percent
1 American Airlines 41 10.57%
2 United Airlines 21 5.41%
3 Airberlin 10 2.58%
4 Delta Air Lines 10 2.58%
5 Enterprise Rent-A-Car 8 2.06%
6 Expedia 7 1.80%
7 Hertz Rent a Car 7 1.80%
8 WOW Air 7 1.80%
9 Amazon.com 5 1.29%
10 Spirit Airlines 5 1.29%
11 Walmart 5 1.29%
12 AT&T 4 1.03%
13 British Airways 4 1.03%
14 HomeAway (Expedia) 4 1.03%
15 Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) 4 1.03%
16 Princess Cruises 4 1.03%
17 Airbnb 3 0.77%
18 Apple 3 0.77%
19 Booking.com (Priceline) 3 0.77%
20 Frontier Airlines 3 0.77%
21 Icelandair 3 0.77%
22 Justfly.com 3 0.77%
23 Marriott 3 0.77%
24 Royal Caribbean (RCCL) 3 0.77%
25 Travelocity (Expedia) 3 0.77%
Total Cases: 388
Last Month: 374
Percent Difference: 3.61%
Total Cases September 2016: 292
Percent Difference Year Ago: 24.74%
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Here’s the previous month:

 

August 2017
Rank Top 25 Companies Total Complaints Percent
1 American Airlines 43 11.50%
2 United Airlines 26 6.95%
3 British Airways 13 3.48%
4 Delta Air Lines 11 2.94%
5 Enterprise Rent-A-Car 11 2.94%
6 Expedia 9 2.41%
7 Airberlin 8 2.14%
8 Southwest Airlines 7 1.87%
9 Air Canada 5 1.34%
10 Alamo Rent a Car (Enterprise) 4 1.07%
11 Amazon.com 4 1.07%
12 Norwegian (Norwegian Air Shuttle) 4 1.07%
13 Turkish Airlines 4 1.07%
14 WOW Air 4 1.07%
15 American Express 3 0.80%
16 Carnival 3 0.80%
17 Google 3 0.80%
18 Hertz Rent a Car 3 0.80%
19 Princess Cruises 3 0.80%
20 Travelocity (Expedia) 3 0.80%
21 AT&T 2 0.53%
22 Aeromexico 2 0.53%
23 DirecTV (AT&T) 2 0.53%
24 Emirates 2 0.53%
25 Europcar 2 0.53%
Total Cases: 374
Last Month: 438
Percent Difference: -17.11%
Total Cases August 2016: 342
Percent Difference Year Ago: 8.56%

And here are our year-to-date numbers:


Cases Year- to-Date
Rank Top 25 Companies Total Complaints Percent
1 American Airlines 335 10.91%
2 United Airlines 191 6.22%
3 Delta Air Lines 90 2.93%
4 British Airways 66 2.15%
5 Expedia 66 2.15%
6 Enterprise Rent-A-Car 64 2.08%
7 Southwest Airlines 44 1.43%
8 Spirit Airlines 43 1.40%
9 Airbnb 41 1.34%
10 Amazon.com 41 1.34%
11 Hertz Rent a Car 41 1.34%
12 AT&T 38 1.24%
13 Lufthansa 33 1.07%
14 Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) 29 0.94%
15 WOW Air 28 0.91%
16 Air Canada 25 0.81%
17 Airberlin 25 0.81%
18 Turkish Airlines 25 0.81%
19 Justfly.com 21 0.68%
20 Air Berlin 20 0.65%
21 American Express 20 0.65%
22 Avis Car Rental 20 0.65%
23 Norwegian (Norwegian Air Shuttle) 20 0.65%
24 Travelocity (Expedia) 19 0.62%
25 Orbitz (Expedia) 18 0.59%
Total Cases 1/1/2017-9/30/2017: 3,071
Total Cases 1/1/2016-9/30/2016: 2,662
Percent Difference: 13.32%

So why is American’s position so safe? Well, consider the words of American CEO Doug Parker made at an investor day last week.

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Let’s just play the clip.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to lose money again,” he told shareholders.

And Robert Isom, president of American Airlines, said the airline is “just scratching the surface” in ancillary revenues.

If you’re a shareholder or a fund manager, this is great news. Buy AAL!

But if you’re a passenger, you already know that American has tested our patience when it comes to “ancillary” revenues. It’s added baggage fees, seat reservation fees, increased change fees, taken away space from the seats, and even created a new sub-class of service called Basic Economy that treats you like the cattle American thinks you are.

American apparently thinks hating its customers is a great business model. It wants to add more fees and make its loyalty program even less rewarding. And it wants Wall Street to love it.

Does it?




Probably not as much as Parker and company want it to.

Now, I’m no institutional investor, but if I were, I would never put money in a company that generates as many complaints as American. Incidentally, we’re not alone in identifying American as the most complained-about airline. The Department of Transportation consistently ranks the airline as the number one major carrier, when it comes to customer grievances. Scroll down to page 48 on this report if you don’t believe me.

This is no way to do business, and it can’t possibly be a successful, long-term business model. When American drops off this list, then I would give the all-clear to consider buying AAL stock.

Not a moment sooner.

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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 contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

  • Annie M

    I would be curious to know how many of the complaints were actually caused by AA and how many were caused by the consumer. Although my recollection in reading is that many ARE caused by AA and canceled or late flights.

  • Alan Gore

    United gets flamed a lot on customer service, but American now seems to have a solid lead three months running. That’s not a blip, that’s policy.

  • MF

    Alan you seem so cynical, and I dare not disagree with your assessment. Customers ‘vote with their feet’, and we are not seeing enough voting for good service & against bad service. Are travelers ‘cows at the slaughterhouse’ just waiting their turn to be turned into hamburger?

  • Mike

    How does Comcast not make this list?

  • Alan Gore

    Travelers certainly don’t enjoy being regarded this way, but there’s a growing feeling that we are being systematically deprived of choice. One example is all the stories about fake damage claims by car rental companies. I used to rent a lot in my consulting days, and if you called in with a blown tire on your rental, they would not only fix it for free and knock a day off your rental charge for the trouble, but be highly apologetic in hopes you wouldn’t sue the company for endangering you with poorly maintained equipment.

    Today, they not only gleefully charge you a premium for replacing the tire, but will ding you for such etheria as “lost use” and “administrative costs.” Then when you look into the other choices out there, you find that all the rental companies have near-identical “policy” that no one claims to have any control over.

  • BubbaJoe123

    “Now, I’m no institutional investor, but if I were, I would never put money in a company that generates as many complaints as American.”

    Then it’s fortunate that you’re not an institutional investor. There may be good reasons not to invest in AAL (including the fact that investing in airlines in general has been a terrible move historically), but any decent investor would know that the tiny number of complaints AA gets here is meaningless when determining how much customers like or dislike a company (sample size matters).

  • Oscar Palma

    I am a frequent traveler in AA due to my business travels. Most of the complaints come from the people that do not travel as often, they save all year long for a vacation which generally starts with an airplane ticket, then all sorts of issues starts happening:

    1- Long lines to check in.
    2- Additional incredible charges for your bags/carryon or a backpack
    3- Long lines for TSA security check (where you are really treated like cattle)
    4- Change of departure gate with no prior notice.
    5- Delay flight for whatever reason (most attributed to bad weather in order to avoid
    fines/payments)
    6- High, extremely high costs of food/water/coffee inside the terminals
    7- Boarding….passengers fighting for a position in line.
    8- Inside the plane there is always a hassle in order to place your carry on on the overhead
    bin because passengers do not want to wait for your bags an additional 30 minutes after arrival.
    9- Your are finally ready to go…now you may be on the tarmac for up to two hours without compensation for losing your connecting flight or being late for a business meeting.
    10- While plane is waiting to takeoff you are NOT ALLOWED TO LEAVE YOUR SEAT. Apparently your flight crew expects you to do your physical needs after takeoff. You are also deprived of getting water/food or any time of assistance from the attendants.

    These are the most common issues that we need to live with every time we fly and to top all of these there are the tickets issues: cancellation policies, wrong name corrections fees, no frequent flyers rewards seats available ever, diminishing the frequent flyers values of your miles, changing frequent flyers conditions denying/cancelling your GOLD standing to none after you have purchased those miles to attain the GOLD status with hard earned dollars and no excuse given.

    Seats are getting smaller and that creates frustration, uneasiness, and a dangerous situation in case of an emergency evacuation.

    Yes….we sadly need government to step in so the passenger are protected against the constant overcrowding of planes due to smaller seats, denied boarding due to overbooking, fees for seats assignments, early boarding, change fees and lost or damaged bags, etc.

    A personal story. I flew in from La Guardia to Miami. After arrival and before we got to the gate, we were advised that there were NO GATES AVAILABLE to deplane…we waited 2 hours before a gate was available. Every 15 minutes the pilot would tell us ” in a few minutes we expect to have our gate ready”. No excuses made, no free miles, nothing said or done by AA. Not even water, coffee offered and bathroom use was denied for two hours after a 2 plus hours flight.

    Obviously this is not the worse airline but since it is the largest in the world a better and more respectful customer service/satisfaction program should be established and enforced.

    Good travels.

  • Oscar Palma

    Comcast, in the last year, has changed their approach to customer services due to the many complaints from all over the USA. It was really unacceptable but I am happy to mention…this has changed for the better.

  • MarkKelling

    In many locations there is only one choice when you fly – whichever airline has the most flights out of your hometown airport. Unfortunately that severely limits passengers’ ability to “vote with their feet” at locations other than major hubs because if AA (or United, or Southwest or whichever one) is the only airline that can get you to your destination with a reasonable number of connections flight frequency and departure times, then you are stuck with them.

  • Bob Davis

    Yeah, my daughter living in Annapolis, MD has had very responsive service from Comcast.

  • joycexyz

    Not where I live!

  • joycexyz

    If business is good, why would they change anything?

  • Michael__K

    It’s not reliable to all the significant figures shown (e.g. 10.57%) but a relatively small sample still has strong statistical significance unless there is some sort systemic bias.

    The remarkable consistency from month-to-month, which is also fairly consistent with the complaints received and published by the DOT, further suggest that this data is capturing a real and persistent phenomenon.

    Airline customer satisfaction surveys also correlate very well with complaints received by the DOT and by Elliott.org. It is true that many of the recent mass surveys have United behind AA in customer satisfaction. It could be that United is better than AA at satisfying the complaints of its most highly aggrieved customers, or at avoiding those situations in the first place, but that AA is slightly better at meeting the expectations of their average passenger.

  • Carchar

    I may have been very lucky, but in the last year, I have had 3 long tarmac delays, 2 before takeoff and 1 after landing. (No, that’s not the luck part.) In all cases, after about a 1/2 hour, we were allowed to use the bathroom and they came around with water for all. The FAs did advise that we could be be given the go ahead to move, so we should not form a bathroom line. Oh, it was on United.

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