airline complaints

Passenger volumes picking up. So is satisfaction with airlines

While the U.S. Department of Transportation logged a record high number of complaints from airline passengers in 2020 – predominantly about ticket refunds – satisfaction with airlines now seems to be on the rise.  

That is according to the 2021 North American Airline Satisfaction Study from J.D. Power. The data for the study covers August 2020 through March 2021.

The results show that even with all the challenges the pandemic put forth for airlines in the past year, satisfaction is up by 27 points (to 819 on a 1,000-point scale), year over year.

“The airline industry adapted to a most unusual year by simplifying ticketing processes, waiving change fees and baggage fees which were key to persuading people to fly during the pandemic,” said Michael Taylor, travel intelligence lead at J.D. Power.

Flight crews on the front lines

The study finds that overall passenger satisfaction with flight crews increases by 26 points. This as flight attendants and pilots were tasked with explaining and enforcing many new health and safety measures during the pandemic.

High marks for no change fees

During the pandemic, most major airlines offered travel waivers that allowed passengers to change or cancel tickets without typical penalties. “Passengers responded favorably,” the study finds, “driving a 47-point increase in customer satisfaction with cost and fees.”

Airline rankings

Delta Air Lines ranks highest in customer satisfaction in this report, with a score of 860, the first time it has ranked highest since 1995.

Southwest Airlines (856) ranks second and Alaska Airlines (850) ranks third.

Here is chart with more rankings.

What’s there for you in DOT’s new tarmac-delay rule?

Yes, the Department of Transportation’s new rule taking effect April 29 promises stiff penalties for airlines that strand passengers inside idling airplanes for more than three hours.

But look closer at the 81-page document detailing DOT’s new Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections rule, and you’ll find other regulations that apply more broadly. They require carriers to be more truthful about flight delays and take more responsibility when things go wrong.

No time to read the entire document? No problem. In an column this week Something for everyone in DOT rules, I outline some of the highlights of the DOT legislation that might just make a difference on your next trip.

Make, share and stick to plans

There’s that three-hour rule. There’s also a two-hour rule.

With a few security-related exemptions, an airline must allow customers to get off the plane — or risk receiving fines of up to $27,500 per passenger — at the three-hour point of a tarmac delay.

After two hours, DOT will require airlines to give passengers “some type of food [i.e. pretzels or granola bars], potable water, working lavatories and, if necessary, medical care.”

These rules apply to major U.S. carriers as well as the small regional carriers you might fly due to code sharing arrangements.

Airlines must also have contingency plans in place, and the plans must be coordinated and shared with the airports regularly used by the carriers, as well as with any medium- or large-hub airports likely to receive diverted flights.

Those plans also need to appear on airline Web sites.

No more ignoring passenger complaints

Have a beef about an airline experience?  Who doesn’t?

Recognizing that some airlines make it difficult for customers to file complaints, the DOT will now require airlines to post information about how and where to file complaints on e-ticket confirmations and at ticket counters and boarding gates.

And airlines must now acknowledge a complaint within 30 days and provide “a substantive response” — something that addresses a customer’s specific complaint — within 60 days.

What else is in the rule? And what’s next?

You can read more about the passenger protections the DOT is rolling out in my column  Something for everyone in DOT rules, where you’ll find a link to the 81-page DOT rule itself. Take a look and then you can decide for yourself if you think the rules will make a difference or, as some industry experts predict, will just cause more problems.

And don’t think DOT is finished with its rulemaking for airline consumer protections. According to a statement posted on his Fast Lane blog in December, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is determined to protect air travelers even further.