The Airline Getting the Most Complaints During the Pandemic

Every airline is going through a tough time right now—but one has been bombarded with far more customer complaints than the rest.

The air travel industry is going through its biggest disruption since the September 11, 2001 attacks. Airlines around the world have suffered huge financial hits as people have stopped traveling—both voluntarily and because airlines canceled scores of flights in an attempt to curb the spread of the pandemic.

Airline customer satisfaction is a dicey business even in normal times. Throw in a pandemic, mass cancellations, and less staff, and you’ve got the staggering surge in customer complaints that April 2020 saw. According to a report from FinanceBuzz, United States airlines saw a 965 percent increase in April 2020 from April 2019. For international airlines, that percentage is a whopping 2,200 percent. (Though perhaps that says just as much about how few complaints non-U.S. airlines get during normal times as it does about how many they got during the pandemic.) Find out the new air travel rules you’ll have to follow the next time you fly.

Which airline saw the most complaints?

No airline is really a “winner” in this situation. But FinanceBuzz did lay out the U.S. airlines that got the most complaints throughout the turbulent month of April, and one had the highest number by far. United Airlines received 2,822 customer complaints, more than double American Airlines’ second-place 1,268. In fact, United comprised 35 percent of all U.S. airline complaints. Southwest and JetBlue fared much better, with 551 and 475 complaints respectively. In the middle were Frontier, with 913, and Delta, with 780.

But despite those telling numbers, United actually wasn’t the airline with the highest rate of complaints. FinanceBuzz conducted some calculations that also took into account the number of complaints an airline received in comparison with its number of customers. So they found the major U.S. airlines’ number of complaints per 100,000 customers. (Even if some didn’t have this many customers in April, the numbers were adjusted accordingly.)

And for this statistic, Frontier Airlines received the highest rate of complaints: 2,129.2 per 100,000 enplanements. (It actually had 42,880 enplanements and received 913 complaints altogether.) And the airline with the second-highest rate of complaints was, unsurprisingly, United. It had 1,241.26 complaints per 100,000 enplanements. Hawaiian Airlines was the only other airline to crack a thousand, with 1016.16, and Southwest again fared well with a mere 106.84. Check out the complete data on FinanceBuzz, and see how that stacks up with which U.S. airlines had the best and worst reputations during “normal times.”

What were the complaints about?

Well, when the pandemic hit, the air travel industry—just like pretty much everything else, from healthcare to schooling—descended into chaos. Flights were canceled en masse, employees were laid off, and people were even banned from flying. Complaints were pretty much inevitable—and they were almost all about the same thing. A full 94 percent of the complaints in April had to do with refunds. As FinanceBuzz points out, the U.S. Department of Transportation says that travelers are “entitled to a refund” in the event of a canceled flight. But because of, again, chaos, a lot of customers had to fight to get refunds in the wake of COVID-19.

All in all, U.S. airlines received 17,387 refund complaints in April 2020. In April 2019, it received a mere 98. Yikes! Things like reservations, fares, flight problems, and baggage did receive some complaints in April 2020 as well, but all of those complaints were a drop in the bucket compared to the refund rage.

That was April, but the pandemic, dismayingly, shows no signs of slowing down. If you’re still having travel struggles, here’s how to get a refund if a world crisis forces you to cancel a trip.

For more on this developing situation, including how life might be different post-lockdown, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.