Why Discount Airlines Draw Fewer Complaints (Hint: It's Not Better Service)

United passengers line up to rebook flights that were canceled due to weather on Feb. 8, 2013, in San Francisco Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Airline passengers complain dramatically more about large airlines than they do about discounters, even when the actual quality of the carriers’ performance is similar, according to a new paper that examined traveler complaints to the federal government over a decade.

The startling conclusion—and one any C-suite executive at American or Delta has long rued—is that smaller airlines such as Alaska, Southwest, and JetBlue Airways tend to catch a break from the public. How come? One likely reason is that the Deltas and Uniteds of the airline industry carry a higher percentage of business travelers, who pay steeper fares and expect better service in return. Smaller airlines predominantly serve leisure travelers and others who are less likely to even know about the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division.

“When I first started this, I had no idea it was possible to make a complaint to the government about a service failure,” says Mike Wittman, a graduate student at MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation who compiled the gripe data from 2002 to 2012. His paper (PDF) was published last month in the Journal of Air Transport Management.

Federal transportation officials compile airline complaints and issue a detailed monthly report on service quality. A complaint to the DOT is also likely to prod an airline to respond to a problem it may have otherwise ignored or overlooked. The consumer protection office also accepts compliments for airlines and tallied a grand total of two positive remarks from travelers in November 2013, the month covered in the most recent report (PDF). Travelers submitted 755 complaints that month.

Recent years have seen a steady stream of travel complaints, but whining spiked in both 2000 and 2007 at times when airport congestion led to severe delays. Mergers also seem to lead to an uptick in issues. United saw a sharp increase in complaints during 2012 due to severe operational problems as part of its merger with Continental; Delta has seen its complaint tallies drop ever since it finished absorbing Northwest in 2010.

Aside from those outliers, however, airline performance has been fairly uniform even though the targets selected by complainers have not. United and Southwest, for example, mishandle similar volumes of luggage, but complaints about United’s baggage woes surpassed Southwest’s by a rate of nearly 10 to 1, Wittman found. Across three common complaint areas—delayed flights, mishandled bags, and denied boardings—Southwest received roughly 4 complaints per 10 million passengers, while United’s complaint rate was 12 times higher in the same period. Likewise, JetBlue’s 76 percent on-time performance was the worst across the industry in the 10-year period studied by Wittman, owing to its hub location at JFK International in New York. Yet JetBlue’s complaint rate for delays came in below American, Delta, United, and US Airways.

Of course, there’s another potential reason airlines like Southwest and JetBlue fare better when it comes to customer complaints: happier employees. “A friendly smile or a sympathetic reaction at the point of service failure may go a long way towards moderating complaint rates at low-cost carriers,” Wittman wrote. Maybe those folks aren’t any more enthused about their bosses than a worker at American or United, but they tend to defuse your wrath enough that a flight problem doesn’t spur you to make a federal case of it.

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