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Air passenger complaints drop in 2013, annual report shows

By Molly McMillin

The Wichita Eagle

The number of complaints passengers lodged against the nation's airlines fell 15 percent last year from the year before.

It's difficult to say, though, whether passengers are finding less to complain about, said Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University and co-author of the annual Airline Quality Rating report.

"Or are they giving up, and they just don't complain?" Headley said. "From my own experience, it's, 'What good does it do?' "

Still, it's a noticeable change, he said. In 2012, complaints rose 20 percent over the year before. They rose 30 percent in 2011.

Thirty-six percent of all complaints were over flight problems, followed by customer service, baggage and reservations, ticketing and boarding, according to data from the report, which was released Monday.

In other findings from the 24th annual report, airlines improved on the number of times they overbooked flights last year, but they lost more bags and arrived late more often than in 2012.

The report, which rates the nation's top 15 airlines, is co-authored by Headley and Brent Bowen, professor and dean at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. They will reveal more findings from the report during a news conference Monday morning at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Headley said airlines have cut the number of planes in the system. At the same time, the number of passengers flying are up, which means flights are full and fares are higher.

That means "I better not miss my connection, because everything is full, full, full," Headley said.

When there are fewer planes in the system, airlines' performance tends to improve.

"If you don't have as many planes, the system works better," he said. "Fewer people complain. You (airlines) can make money, because you can charge more."

The industry has undergone major consolidations recently. Southwest Airlines bought AirTran Airways, American Airlines acquired U.S. Air, Delta Air Lines merged with Northwest Airlines and United Airlines merged with Continental. The four combined airlines captured 63 percent of domestic passenger traffic last year.

In the big picture, consolidation is good, Headley said.

"A consolidated or combined airline has the potential to survive the ups and downs of volatile fuel prices and economic condition," Headley said. "Ultimately, that would be better for the consumer, because it tends to keep that choice option. ... At least, we will have some air service in the process."

In Wichita, consolidation may mean fewer flight choices, which tends to compress demand into full airplanes and higher fares.

"Trust me," Headley said. "It always works to the advantage of the airline, never the consumer."

Airlines need customers and want to make them as happy as they can. But they've learned from the days when they had lots of flights but didn't make money.

"The bottom line is staying in business and making money," Headley said. "That will win out over pleasing the consumer."

Consolidation, though, doesn't translate into bad airlines, Headley said.

"But it doesn't always produce a good experience for the traveler either," he said.

Headley was surprised that the number of on-time arrivals and mishandled bags worsened last year. It's easier for airlines to perform well when they operate fewer airplanes, he said.

"I would have hoped the baggage mishandling would have improved," Headley said, especially because airlines charge for checked bags.

(c)2014 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)