When the pandemic first started, airlines received a $50 billion bailout from the U.S. government to keep them afloat as travel reached a standstill. However, despite a robust financial recovery, airlines complaints are still coming in.
Airlines have not managed to meet customer expectations, according to a December report by the Arizona Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, an independent and nonpartisan consumer advocacy group.
The group found over 100,000 complaints from April 2020 through August 2021. That's nearly 200 complaints against airlines per day.
Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Transportation would receive between 1,000 to 2,000 complaints per month. Since the pandemic began, that number has stayed over 3,000 per month, according to the Arizona Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.
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And the complaints keep pouring in.
The top complaint for every month in the past year has been the denial of refunds, the report found. Instead of giving full refunds, airlines often opted for vouchers and credits for future flights.
"Hundreds of thousands of consumers are still trying to get $10 billion in refunds for flights canceled last year. If taxpayer money had been invested adequately, complaint volume wouldn't be so high and flights would be more punctual," said Diane E. Brown, executive director of the Arizona Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.
Are some airlines better than others?
Flyers have been hit with mass cancellations by multiple airlines this year, with American Airlines canceling over 2,000 flights in November and Spirit Airlines canceling more than 3,000 flights over the course of 11 days in the summer.
All major airlines have created their fair share of pain for consumers, but a few stand out.
Frontier Airlines tops the list with the most complaints per 100,000 people aboard a flight, with about 2% of flyers filing a formal complaint about it.
Frontier is followed by United and Hawaiian, who both averaged about 1% of passengers filing complaints.
In contrast, Southwest, Delta and American each kept the complaints below 0.2% of all passengers on that airline.
Of the top ten largest airlines in the U.S., Hawaiian and Delta had the highest rates of on-time flights, while Allegiant and Spirit ranked the lowest.
"Now and always, taking care of our customers is at the center of everything we do. Delta continues to provide full refunds to eligible passengers requesting them when we have cancelled a flight or made a significant schedule change," Emily Cashdan, senior coordinator of corporate communications at Delta Airlines, said. "Last year, we processed more than 6.7 million refunds, totaling over $3 billion."
Cashdan also points out that Delta had 144 days in 2021 that had zero cancellations.
Frontier, United, Spirit and Hawaiian Airlines did not immediately respond to USA TODAY's request for comment.
The airline industry has certainly faced significant challenges. A tight labor market has led many airlines to be short-staffed, and the initial shock of the pandemic dealt a massive blow to the airline industry, causing U.S. passenger airlines to lose over $34 billion from April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
However, airlines have made a steady financial recovery. They turned a profit of $1 billion in the second quarter of this year, and the four largest airlines all posted profits in the third quarter of this year.
Story continues below.
The case of Kristin Horowitz
Kristin Horowitz was one of the people who filed a complaint to the U.S. Department of Transportation this past year.
A small business owner in California, Horowitz went on a two-week vacation along the East Coast in August and was scheduled to fly home on United Airlines, Horowitz explained in an interview with the Arizona Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.
The trip with her family was supposed to be a relaxing vacation after a taxing year of lockdowns and uncertainty. Instead, she was stuck waiting for a flight for two days, getting placed for hours on hold and incurring $858.28 worth of expenses, she told the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
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"I felt absolutely helpless," she said to the Public Interest Research Group. The stress "totally undid any of the rest of the trip we'd taken. As someone whose business was deeply affected by the pandemic and I had to fight the entire time to keep it and my employees employed, this was supposed to be an opportunity to recharge and unfortunately, I came back just as much in panic mode as when I left."
She eventually received a $500 check from United, along with four vouchers for future flights, which she says she will never use due to her terrible experience.
"Airlines can and should issue refunds versus providing vouchers, improve their record of punctuality, and treat its customers in a manner that doesn’t solicit widespread complaints," Brown says. "The federal government needs to step in and land protections for consumers."
Michelle Shen is a Money & Tech Digital Reporter for USA TODAY. You can reach her @michelle_shen10 on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Top complaint about airlines? Denying flight refunds