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. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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