Customer Complaints Surge Against Airlines and Online Travel Agents During COVID-19 [Data Study]

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Flying can sometimes be easier said than done, and that’s true without accounting for the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. When things don’t go as expected, passengers aren’t afraid to speak their mind.

With COVID-19’s impact on U.S. airlines, there have been even more hiccups in flying than ever before. From rerouted flights to halted travel plans, the coronavirus has caused travelers and airline employees alike major headaches. But exactly how much has the pandemic impacted the flying experience?

We looked into the number of customer complaints submitted to the Department of Transportation against U.S. airlines, foreign airlines, and travel agents over the past few months.

Analysis Methodology

Our study looks at consumer complaints against airlines in March 2020 and April 2020, as well as the year-over-year trends to compare volume of complaints prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic. We used data from the most recent air travel consumer report compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

We analyzed the number of complaints for the top 10 U.S. airlines, top 10 foreign airlines, and top 10 travel booking agents. We measured both the total number of complaints, as well as the number of complaints per 100,000 enplanements. Complaints are considered to be anything with regards to refunds, ticketing, fares, customer service, baggage, over sales, disability, or other similar issues.

To compare the number of complaints over time, we calculated the month-over-month percent change of complaints, broken down by category in March 2020 and April 2020, as well as the year-over-year percent change from April 2019.

Air Travel Customer Complaints

Airline complaints summary

It comes as no surprise that the number of airline customer complaints has spiked along with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Both airlines and online travel agents (OTAs) have seen a dramatic increase in feedback from their travelers. U.S. airlines saw complaints nearly quadruple, from 2,903 complaints in March 2020 to 8,146 in April 2020. 

Similarly, foreign airline complaints increased by 252% from March 2020 to April of 2020 and by 2,220% from April 2019 to April 2020, with April 2020 registering 9,374 complaints. This is a dramatic change when April of 2019 saw 404 complaints. 

Lastly, online travel agents are no exception to the trend. Their complaints increased by 711% from March 2020 to April 2020, topping out at 2,304 complaints. When taken into account that April 2019 saw only 33 complaints, the year-over-year change registers at 6,882%.

Air Travel Complaint Categories

Airline complaints category summary

When broken down by category, there’s one consistent complaint that the overall increase can be attributed to: refunds. There were over six times the number of refund complaints in April 2020 than in March of 2020 going from 2,741 to 17,387 respectively. 

Other categories that slightly increased in complaints include reservations, ticketing, boarding, and fares.

Interestingly, issues with customer service, baggage, flight problems, and disabilities decreased, likely due to the reduced number of passengers flying. 

Complaints Against U.S. Airlines

Airline complaints by category for US airlines

 

Looking at the top 10 U.S. airlines, some companies faced more complaints than others. United Airlines (2,822), American Airlines (1,268), and Frontier (913) received the most complaints in April of 2020. Frontier received the most complaints based on the number of passengers served, with 2,192 complaints per 100,000 enplanements. This time last year, Frontier received just 12 complaints per 100,000 enplanements. 

Southwest Airlines had the lowest increase in complaints, and still saw an 3,978% increase. They received roughly 2.6 complaints for every 100,000 passengers in April of 2019, and over 106 complaints per 100,000 in April of 2020. 

As mentioned, most complaints were regarding refunds. United saw 4 times the number of refund requests in April 2020 as compared to March of 2020. 

Airlines complaints by category for US airlines

Complaints Against Foreign Airlines

Airline complaints by category for foreign airlines

Many foreign airlines saw similar trends to those of U.S. airlines. Air Canada, Volaris Airlines, and TAP Air Portugal each had dramatic increases in refund complaints from March 2020 to April 2020. Air Canada saw over 20 times the number of refund complaints in April 2020 as compared to March 2020. 

In the same time frame, Etihad Airways, Ethopian Airlines, and Air Transat held relatively stable in customer complaints. On the other hand, Bahamasair Holdings, and Aerolineas Argentinas saw decreases in the number of refund requests and complaints overall month-to-month. 

Complaints Against Travel Booking Agents

Airline complaints by category for travel agencies

Travel Booking Agents are not exempt from these same customer complaints. Each of the top 10 agents received an increased number of refund requests from March 2020 to April 2020. While some companies such as American Express Travel, Chase Travel, Cheap Tickets, Gotogate, and Hopper.com received no complaints in March 2020, they each had dozens of requests in April 2020.

Expedia.com had the most complaints with 532 refund requests in April 2020, compared to just 29 in March 2020. Agents such as Cheapoair.com, Justfly.com, and Chase Travel all had over 100 complaints in April 2020, compared to their handful of requests in the month prior. 

Final Thoughts

Across all U.S. and several foreign airlines, the drastic change in number of passengers submitting complaints is undeniable. Specifically, with travel plans canceled and stay-at-home orders in place, customers want refunds. Even online travel agents have seen a drastically increased number of customer complaints. 

Clearly the airline industry was significantly impacted by COVID-19. With the pandemic still present, when do you expect complaints to return to normal? Do you think refund requests will continue to rise in the coming months? 


Alex Miller

About Alex Miller

Alex has been traveling for over 25 years and from a young age was lucky enough to set out on numerous family trips all over the world, which gave him the travel bug. Alex has since earned millions of travel points and miles, mainly through maximizing credit card sign-up bonuses and taking every opportunity to earn the most points possible on each dollar spent.

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