Pandemic refund blues: Travelers submit record number of complaints against airlines, travel agencies in 2020
When travelers have issues with an airline, they usually pick up the phone or turn to Twitter or Facebook for help.
Lodging a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation takes a few more steps and is often seen as a last resort.
That last resort was popular in 2020, with travelers struggling to get refunds during the coronavirus pandemic filing complaints in unprecedented numbers, according to figures released Thursday in the agency's Air Travel Consumer Report.
The DOT logged 102,550 complaints against airlines, travel agencies and tour operators last year, compared with 15,342 in 2019. That's an increase of more than 500%.
Nearly 90% of the complaints concerned refunds, the DOT said.
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U.S. and foreign airlines accounted for the bulk of the complaints, with U.S. carriers receiving 35,873 complaints, foreign carriers 51,756. Online travel agencies, including Expedia, CheapoAir and JustFly, received 14,604 complaints.
The DOT said its Office of Aviation Consumer Protection has talked to the largest U.S. and foreign air carriers and other airlines that received a large number of refund complaints to ensure compliance with the refund requirements.
"Many passengers who had initially been denied refunds have received the required refunds,'' the agency said in a statement. "The Department will take enforcement action against noncompliant airlines and ticket agents as necessary.''
In a letter earlier this month to the new DOT officials, Consumer Report listed flight refund policies among things they want the agency to work on to protect consumers.
"The administration should strengthen and expand existing DOT rules on passenger flight refunds, particularly during 'force majeure' situations such as a global pandemic,'' the letter said. "In addition, the DOT must vigorously enforce these refund regulations with US airlines, foreign airlines, and other ticket sellers, including resolving outstanding claims that have not been settled, in some cases since March 2020.''
Which US airlines received the most complaints?
U.S. airlines saw complaints to the DOT nearly quadruple from 2019, with the numbers spiking beginning in March as the pandemic halted travel.
For the full year, nearly 1 out of 3 of the complaints was filed against United Airlines, which took a hard stance on refunds early in the pandemic, despite DOT warnings to the industry about refund policies.
United received 11,274 complaints, more than 10,000 of them about refunds. American had the second-highest number of complaints, but the volume of complaints was barely half of United's, at 5,949 complaints.
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Adjusting for U.S. airline size, though, United had the third-worst complaint rate in 2020, with nearly 30 complaints per 100,000 passenger boardings, according to the DOT. The comparable figure in 2019: 1.41.
Frontier Airlines topped the list, with nearly 50 complaints per 100,000 boardings, followed by Hawaiian Airlines with nearly 38 complaints per 100,000 boardings.
Regional carriers Mesa Air, PSA and Envoy Air, which fly shorter routes for big airlines under the major carrier's name, registered the fewest complaints, but most travelers with gripes would file the complaint against the major airline.
Among major airlines, Southwest Airlines had the lowest complaint rate, at 2.64 complaints per 100,000 passengers, but that was up from 0.33 in 2019.
Which foreign airlines logged the most complaints?
Among airlines based outside the United States, Air Canada received the most complaints, at 6,019.
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TAP Air Portugal was next, with 5,163 complaints received, followed by Mexican carrier Volaris at 4,560.
The DOT does not publish rates of complaints about foreign carriers as it does for U.S. airlines.