WSU study shows U.S. airlines had better performance, more complaints

U.S. airlines were facing a huge increase in consumer complaints during the past year, as the coronavirus pandemic created a slowdown in air travel.

Wichita State University has released the annual Airline Quality Rating, and it shows that the carriers did better with on-time arrivals and baggage handling, but complaints were up by nearly 400 percent.  The survey was based on data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and it was co-authored by Wichita State University marketing professor Dr. Dean Headley and former aeronautical science professor Dr. Brent Bowen of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.

Dr. Headley, WSU emeritus associate professor of marketing at the W. Frank Barton School of Business, said about 83 percent of the complaints were over refunds.  The pandemic made people cancel planned flights and they wanted refunds, while airlines wanted to offer vouchers for future travel.   Dr. Headley said most airlines were able to respond to the complaints, although they struggled in getting that done in a timely fashion.

Dr. Headley said Southwest Airlines was the the only rated airline to maintain a nearly level score for 2020.  The other nine airlines saw their scores worsen by 40 percent to as much as 800 percent from 2019.    The 2020 ranking is listed below, with the 2019 ranking in parentheses:

  1. Southwest (3)
  2. Allegiant (1)
  3. Delta (4)
  4. Alaska (5)
  5. Spirit (8)
  6. JetBlue (6)
  7. American (10)
  8. United (9)
  9. Hawaiian (2)
  10. Frontier (7)

Dr. Headley said consumers have more confidence in air travel and people are ready to fly again.  Airlines are expecting to fly at 80 percent of capacity, and Dr. Headley said most of the travel will be for vacations.    He said business travel will be slow to come back after the pandemic, and companies will be looking at other options instead of travel.