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Airline complaints increase as travel begins to recover from COVID-19 pandemic

Although the travel industry is slowly bouncing back as pandemic concerns begin to fade, the effects of coronavirus on domestic flights in the United States will have a lasting impact in the coming years.

Airlines faced many challenges in 2020, forcing them to adapt to a “new normal,” even though some were able to withstand the storm better than others.


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-issue companies facing 2020 were a significant increase in customer complaints in the first months of the pandemic, with the most prevalent in April and May according to the annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR), a study of how large airlines in the US performed over a period of one year.

Complaints increased by nearly 400% from 2019 to 2020, with nearly 83% of complaints centered on reimbursement issues for unused travel compared to just 6% in 2019, researchers Dean Headley and Brent Bowen found.

“Airlines had a major challenge in working through reimbursement issues presented by canceled travel plans, but most were able to respond and mitigate customer concerns in a timely manner,” Headley said.

Southwest ranked best among the other airlines in terms of complaints, with the lowest consumer complaint rate, at 2.64 per. 100,000 passengers. Frontier, however, was ranked worst with a speed of 49.30 per. 100,000 passengers.


Overall, the entire aviation industry experienced a dramatic increase in complaints and jumped from 1.06 in 2019 to 11.75 per. 100,000 passengers by 2020.

Other issues, including timely performance, involuntarily denied boarding and ill-treated baggage, were not so strongly affected by the pandemic.

“If you traveled by air in 2020, chances are good that you had good airline performance,” said Headley, Emeritus Associate Professor of Marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business at Wichita State University. “Better performance on time, fewer battered bags and very few denied boarding were all to be expected with far fewer people flying in the system.”

A nearly 60% reduction in passenger travel due to the pandemic played a significant role in the AQR results, enabling airlines to make improvements in key areas.

Planned passengers experienced a dramatic loss in March 2020, which continued to decline throughout the rest of the year. The number of total domestic passengers in 2020 was less than 40% of the number of planned passengers in 2019.

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Fewer passengers gave airlines more time and flexibility to improve performance areas that were previously worse in previous years.

Southwest was the only airline to maintain an almost level score for 2020 compared to 2019. The other nine saw the opposite, with their scores deteriorating by 40% to as much as 800% from 2019.

Hawaiian Airlines ranked best for performance on time in 2020 with an arrival rate of 88%. Allegiant was the worst in terms of time performance at just over 71%.

The aviation industry’s total time percentage in 2020 was almost 84% against 79% in 2019.

In addition, denied boarding also saw improvement. Frontier had the highest involuntary denied boarding rate of 0.24 per. 10,000 passengers. Allegiant, Delta, Hawaiian and JetBlue had the lowest rate of 0 per. 10,000 passengers.


Seven airlines improved their denied boarding rate, with Allegiant improving the most. However, three airlines saw no difference in their denied boarding rate in 2020 compared to 2019. Overall, the industry’s performance was noticeably better in 2020 at a rate of 0.8 per. 10,000 passengers compared to 2019, when it was 0.19.

Meanwhile, Allegiant had the best baggage handling with 1.48 battered bags per. 1,000 checked bags, while American had the worst with 6.38 battered bags per. 1,000 checked.

The aviation industry generally improved with its battered baggage rate and fell from 5.57 per. 1,000 checked bags in 2019 to 3.96 per. 1,000 in 2020.

Despite setbacks in 2020, the aviation industry appears to be slowly recovering. The volume of flights has begun to return – more than 1 million passengers passed through the TSA airport checkpoints every day in April 2021.

“At the rate people are returning to the airways, it does not look like demand will be an issue,” Headley said. “I am confident that the airlines will do their best to make the domestic and international air travel system ready to serve travelers,” he continued.


Still, it will likely take several years for the industry to return to pre-pandemic normality.

“[The] traveling audiences are eager to fly again “according to Bowen.” Consumers have renewed confidence in air travel and are launching the plans they have made during the pandemic. The industry sees a solid return to passenger volume. “

This is the overall 2020 ranking for the country’s 10 largest airlines based on the report’s results with the previous year’s ranking in brackets:

  1. Southwest Airlines (3)
  2. Allegiant Air (1)
  3. Delta Air Lines (4)
  4. Alaska Airlines (5)
  5. Spirit Airlines (8)
  6. JetBlue Airways (6)
  7. American Airlines (10)
  8. United Airlines (9)
  9. Hawaiian Airlines (2)
  10. Frontier Airlines (7)

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