Airlines dominate a busy January for complaints

Airlines dominated January’s reader complaints, with four air carriers occupying the top four slots for the month. The total number of grievances jumped to 317, a 9 percent increase from the same period one year ago.

Although it’s probably too early to say, this could be the start of a new “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude by corporate America, emboldened by a new unashamedly pro-business administration. Time will tell.

We typically receive only the most difficult cases through our help form. 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 January looked like:

Company Complaints Percent
American Airlines 34 10.73%
United Airlines 21 6.62%
British Airways 14 4.42%
Delta Air Lines 11 3.47%
Avis Car Rental 10 3.15%
Lufthansa 9 2.84%
Expedia 7 2.21%
Verizon 7 2.21%
Air Berlin 6 1.89%
Airbnb 5 1.58%

Here’s the previous month.

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%

Before we try to find meaning in these numbers, a few notes about some minor changes to our methodology. At the beginning of the year, we modified our intake form so that we pre-filled the company names (you can select “other” if the company isn’t on the list). That allowed us to to more carefully separate our complaints.

With a company like Expedia, for example, you’ll now see that we’ve separated Orbitz, and Hotwire into their own categories.

I hope this will lead to a better understanding of where the complaints are originating. In the short term, it might make a company like Expedia or Enterprise look as if it has fewer complaints, but we can always adjust those later in the year to account for corporate ownership.

So what do these numbers mean?

✓ As I noted at the beginning, it may be too soon to declare that corporate America has declared war on its own customers. But a nine percent increase year over year is troubling. Certainly, there are some who feel the shackles are off and that the free market is about to begin its reign of terror. Then again, it may just be a little blip. I hope it’s the latter.

✓ I’m surprised that airlines did so well (or poorly, depending on your perspective). January is one of the slowest months for air travel. It’s also a quiet month, with light load factors and few vacationers. What is happening? Who knows?

✓ December’s tech companies — AT&T and Apple chief among them — dropped off the list. The holidays are over. Everyone has their presents and they are happy, presumably.

The big question: What do these numbers mean for you in February and beyond? I would absolutely think twice before booking an American Airlines flight. According to our complaint statistics, you’re almost twice as likely to run into a problem as with United Airlines.

Also, watch for signs that companies are giving their customer short shrift in the coming months. If that happens, we’ll be here to help, of course. Don’t forget to file a complaint with us so that we can count it — and help you.

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