Airline passengers in the U.S. can finally fly without too many restrictions, but many are still not happy about their travel experiences.
Air travel consumer complaints in May were 237% higher than the same period in 2019, with 4,344 complaints, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, released earlier this month. Still, that number was 14.5% down from the 5,079 complaints in April.
Passengers’ No. 1 reason for filing a complaint was related to seeking a refund, with 30.5% of complaints focused on that issue. Flight problems followed as the second highest category of complaints, with nearly a quarter of complaints in May related to scheduling issues such as cancellations and delays.
The number of scheduled flights has been picking up more than two years after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the government gradually lifted restrictions on flights, the number of U.S. airline-operated domestic flights climbed to 591,000 in May 2022 from a low of 180,000 in May 2020, reaching one of the highest levels since the pandemic began, and surpassing 583,000 flights in March 2020.
However, the industry is seeing more delays due to staff shortages and other issues. In May, airlines reported 65 arrival or departure tarmac delays of more than three hours for domestic flights, nearly double the 33 three-hour-or-more tarmac delays in April.
In May, the cancellation rate for flights was 2%, the same level as 2019 May. The airlines with the highest cancellation rates were Delta Air Lines (2.7%), United Airlines (2.4%) and JetBlue Airways (2.3%).
The airlines defended their rate of cancellations. “Despite challenges during May, Delta people continued to work safely and thoughtfully to take care of our customers, as evidenced by our on-time performance shown in the May DOT report as well as our rate of complaints – second fewest amongst the largest U.S. carriers,” a Delta spokesperson said in response to the complaint data.
Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian apologized for disruptions to customers – including more than 400 canceled flights over a four-day period – in a June 30 email message to the airline’s SkyMiles members. He shared a few actions Delta would adopt in the future, including updating airport procedures and accelerating hiring.
(United Airlines declined to comment and JetBlue Airways did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
In airports, a lack of security agents and baggage handlers delayed checking in for passengers, according to the Wall Street Journal. Airline executives said recruiting people and getting them through training took time, especially with a smaller workforce due to COVID-related absences and other pandemic-related issues.
But airlines say other factors are contributing to delays, namely air-traffic control issues. The CEO of Airlines for America, Nicholas Calio, wrote a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on June 24, saying that at least one-third of recent cancellations were partly due to Federal Aviation Administration air-traffic control issues. (The FAA was not immediately available for comment, but has previously said that there were many reasons for flight delays and cancellations.)
A4A is the trade group representing U.S. carriers such as Alaska, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest and United Airlines.
“Americans are returning to the skies at a rapid pace and carriers are working to restore service across the country while navigating a range of challenges, including weather and staffing,” a spokesperson for Airlines for America said in response to the latest complaint report.
However, Buttigieg and the FAA defended air-traffic controllers. FAA Administrator Billy Nolen told Reuters, “We are on track to hire 1,000 controllers this year, receiving more than 57,000 applications for 1,500 positions.” He added, “We can see overall delays are down …The airlines are working to right-size their network.”
Buttigieg also rebuffed suggestions that the FAA was one of the main reasons for flight delays and cancellations. “Anytime there’s anything under FAA’s control, they will work on it,” he said, according to The Washington Post, “but I want to be very, very clear here: That is not explaining the majority of delays.”