Air passenger complaints higher with established airlines

Established airlines are more likely to get air passenger complaints compared to cheaper airlines, regardless of the quality of service, says a new MIT study.

We tend to complain more to established airlines when a bag is lost in transit, the plane is overbooked, or the flight is cancelled or delayed.

According to Michael Wittman, a graduate student in MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation, air passenger complaints are less common in low-cost upstarts, even though service quality might be identical to the more expensive airlines.

Wittman’s study, which is published in the Journal of Air Transport Management tallied complaints made to the US Department of Transportation (DOT) from 2002 to 2012.

He found that passengers are ten times as likely to complain to an established airline than low-cost carriers, regardless of the type of service failure they experienced.

Three factors may influence air passenger complaints

According to Wittman, a number of factors may help explain the difference:

  • Unaware of complaints procedure – Low-cost carrier passenger may not know they can complain to the federal government.
  • Pay less get less – Expectations of service or quality may be lower when flying with a low-cost carrier.
  • Customer support – Perhaps low-cost carriers are nicer to their passengers, resulting in less friction.

Wittman said:

“For network carriers, this is an opportunity to improve, because they can say, ‘Operationally, we’re really not doing any worse than the other carriers, but some of our customers don’t like us as much, so what can we do to help solve those problems?’. That’s one place where this research can be implemented.”

The Air Travel Consumer Report

Wittman gathered and analyzed data from the Air Travel Consumer Report, which is published every month by the Airline Consumer Protection Division within the DOT. It contains data on the number of flight cancellations and delays, bags lost or misplaced, and passengers who either voluntarily or involuntarily were denied boarding due to overbooking.

The report also contains details of passenger complaints to the DOT in all these areas. Passengers can complain by phone, online, via the DOT’s mobile application, or in writing.

It is available to the public and is often used as a reference for customer service research. Researchers at Purdue University and Wichita State University use it when preparing the Airline Quality Rating Report, which is commonly cited by media outlets.

Airlines pay attention to service failure data

Wittman said:

“Airlines spend tens of millions of dollars trying to make sure their schedules are constructed in such a way that they can meet the DOT definition of being on time, because they don’t want to be in last place in that column when the list comes out each year. So airlines are paying attention to this [data].”

Whittman found that while established airlines (network carriers) appeared to provide a more inferior service in some years than low-cost carriers, overall, both types of airlines lost or misplaced a similar percentage of bags, had approximately the same proportion of flight delays and overbooked aircraft.

However, despite having similar levels of service, the network airlines, such as US Airways and United Airlines received a considerably higher number of complaints than the cheaper, smaller airlines, such as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue, even after taking into account difference in service quality.

Wittman found a notably stark discrepancy between Southwest and United Airlines, with United received up to 10 times more complaints regarding baggage problems, even though the two airlines have similar baggage-service failure rates.

The more we pay, the more we complain

Wittman believes ticket prices may be linked to the number of complaints “There’s research that suggests people’s expectations about service quality depend on how much they paid for their ticket. If I paid $500 for my flight from Boston to Los Angeles, I’d expect my bag to arrive on time, with no flight delays, and that I can actually get a seat because I’ve paid all these ancillary fees.”

Wittman also found that complaint rates are linked to significant events. Following the September 11th terrorist attack the complaint rate declined, but went up in 2007 when airlines downsized in response to the economic downturn.

Wittman said his study would be more comprehensive if he could get data directly from airlines regarding complaints. However, they are unlikely to offer such details. “No one wants to pull back the curtains and say, ‘This is the number of times people complain about our service.’ There’s no good headline that can be made out of that.”

Do complaints lead to loss of customer loyalty?

Wittman says he plans to ultimately look at a very practical question. Does a customer who complains lose interest in using that airline again? He suspects the main driving force behind which airline to use is price – the lower the better – but adds that it is still too early to tell.

Wittman said “It could be that people complain about an airline and say, ‘I’ll never fly that airline again: They lost my bag and were three hours late. But the next time they need to fly, the lowest fare is from that airline, and they may say, ‘I don’t like flying with them, but I’ll book with them anyway to save $20.’”

The MIT Airline Industry Consortium supported this study.