Air travelers’ complaints rise more than 20 percent, but where’s their breaking point?

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By Christopher Elliott

What’s your breaking point? When do you say “That’s it — I’m never flying again!”

It’s no academic question for America’s airlines, which continue to provoke passengers with new fees, surcharges and rules. They want to know when passengers would rather stay home.

As another summer winds down, maybe they’re a little closer to finding an answer. Airline consumer complaints rose more than 20 percent for the first six months of the year, the Department of Transportation reported last week. From January to June 2015, the government received 9,542 consumer complaints, up from 7,935 received during the first six months of last year. DOT complaints typically represent a small fraction of total complaints.

At the same time, amid a government investigation into collusion, fare-watchers predict that air ticket prices will drop to record lows this fall because of lower fuel prices and, most important, decreased seasonal demand.

Have airlines gone too far?

Have they cut service to the point that no one wants to fly anymore?

Some travelers say yes.

Crystal Stranger, an accountant from Honolulu, reached her breaking point when United Airlines — which she describes as “the worst airline ever for traveling with small children” — first charged for her checked stroller and then dinged her for overweight baggage as well.

“We had to take all our bags apart and re-pack” for being a couple of pounds beyond the limit, she remembers. “We were still charged an overweight baggage fee.”

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Airlines are fixated on collecting more money for your luggage. Last year, they pocketed more than $3.5 billion in fees, and this number is on the rise. United was the second most successful airline for charging for baggage, with earnings of $652 million. Top honors go to Delta Air Lines, which bagged $863 million.

Spirit Airlines is also pushing the limits, at least for Taylor Murray. He recently booked a flight from Las Vegas to Denver on the discount carrier and was surprised at the airline’s fees, which seemed even more extreme than the ones you’d find on one of the major carriers.

For example, Spirit charges for carry-on bags, and if you want a reserved seat, you have to pay extra for it. For Murray, a sales manager for a Las Vegas call center software company, it felt like a bait-and-switch. He says Spirit offered a low fare but then added hidden fees.

High costs, hidden fees

“At the end of the day the price came out to be the same as a known-name airline,” he says.

Spirit is the undisputed industry leader in making money from fees. A recent survey estimated that about 40 cents out of every dollar you spend on the airline will be a surcharge, higher than with any other airline. In a recent ad campaign, Spirit claimed airlines that include items like checked bags or seat reservations in ticket prices are dishonest about their pricing.

Matt Foley’s breaking point was the coffee. He wanted a cup of joe on a recent Frontier Airlines flight from Washington to Denver, and a flight attendant asked him for a credit card. “A buck-ninety-nine for coffee?” he says. “Really? To charge for nonalcoholic drinks almost made me scream.” (Related: Kicked off my flight for being disruptive — does Frontier Airlines owe me anything?)

Foley says he’s baffled by the way airlines gradually removed legroom and then tried to charge extra for it in an effort to profit. At some point, he figures, either the airlines will run out of things to charge for, or passengers will run out of things they’re willing to pay for. But for him, that time has already come. He refuses to fly Frontier no matter how low the fare.

Have we reached the limit? Maybe.

Frontier recently caved in to customers such as Foley who had been complaining about its abundant fees. In August, it began bundling several extras, including one checked bag, one carry-on, the “best available” seat and no fee for changing the ticket later, into a package it calls “the Works.”

But that doesn’t mean airlines have stopped pushing. One reason: Passengers keep buying low fares, although they often do so with unrealistic expectations.

“Most travelers take the cheapest fares and are then disappointed when they do the traveling,” says Spencer Carlson, who runs a travel company in Kansas City, Mo. “But some airlines are figuring out this threshold.”

Beyond the ticket

For example, Norwegian Air, a low-cost European carrier, offers one-way tickets from New York to Oslo at about $180 but has still figured out how to exceed expectations. Yes, it was extra for luggage, but Norwegian didn’t charge for in-flight movies, the food was good and the seats were comfortable, Carlson says. “I was blown away at the professionalism of the staff and the cleanliness of the aircraft. The overall experience was fantastic.” (Here’s our guide to booking an airline ticket.)

Norwegian is an interesting example, because American carriers have been trying to stop it from operating in the United States. The reason? Instead of cutting back service, Norwegian found creative ways around high labor costs. Instead of using European or American flight crews, for example, it reportedly hires Bangkok-based crews through a Singapore employment agency who are governed by Singapore labor law. It also hires some American flight crews.

Seems the question isn’t whether airlines have gone too far. They have, and they know it. It’s more a question of which direction they’ve done it in. In an effort to eke out a little extra profit, are they more willing to anger their customers or their employees?

Either way, one thing is certain: They probably don’t have far to go before we’re at our breaking point.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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