The situation of air travel is getting worse. This is what passengers are telling the US government

WASHINGTON — Air travel got even more miserable last year, measured by the number of consumer complaints filed with the U.S. government.

The Transportation Department said Friday that it received nearly 97,000 complaints in 2023, up from about 86,000 the previous year. The department said the complaints were so numerous that it took until July to sort through the filings and compile the statistics.

This is the highest number of consumer complaints against airlines since 2020, when airlines delayed giving refunds to customers after air travel shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The increase in complaints came even as airlines canceled far fewer U.S. flights — 116,700 last year, or 1.2% of the total, compared with about 210,500, or 2.3%, in 2022, according to FlightAware data. However, the rate of delays remained much higher last year, accounting for about 21% of all flights.

Cancellations have been relatively low so far this year – about 1.3% of all flights – but delays still account for about 21%.

More than two-thirds of all complaints last year were about U.S. airlines, but a quarter were about foreign airlines. Most of the rest were about travel agents and tour operators.

Complaints about the treatment of passengers with disabilities increased by more than a quarter compared to 2022. Discrimination complaints, though fewer in number, also increased sharply. Most complaints were about race or national origin.

travelers on vacation
Vacationers wait for their luggage after arriving at Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday.Rick Bowmer/AP

The Transportation Department said the increase in complaints was partly the result of more consumers being informed about their rights and the ability to file complaints. The department said it helped Southwest Airlines customers obtain more than $600 million in refunds and reimbursements after nearly 17,000 flight cancellations through December 2022. Southwest also paid a $35 million fine.

Airlines receive a lot of complaints from passengers who don't know how to complain to the government or don't bother to do so, but airlines don't release those figures.

The Transportation Department is modernizing its complaint filing system, which the agency says will help it better monitor the airline industry. However, the department now releases complaint numbers several months late. It did not release statistics for the second half of 2023 until Friday.

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