US airline passengers are getting grumpier, and it is little wonder.
Airlines keep shrinking the size of seats to stuff more people onto planes, those empty middle seats that once provided a little more room are now occupied and more people with tickets are being turned away because flights are overbooked.
Private researchers who analyzed federal data on airline performance said in a report that was to be released yesterday that consumer complaints to the US Department of Transportation jumped by one-fifth last year, even though other measures, such as on-time arrivals and mishandled baggage, show airlines are doing a better job.
“The way airlines have taken 130-seat airplanes and expanded them to 150 seats to squeeze out more revenue, I think, is finally catching up with them,” said Dean Headley, a business professor at Wichita State University who co-wrote the annual report.
The industry is even looking at ways to make today’s small bathrooms more compact in the hope of squeezing a few more seats onto planes.
“I can’t imagine the uproar that making toilets smaller might generate,” Headley said, especially given that passengers increasingly weigh more than they use to.
Nevertheless, “Will it keep them from flying? I doubt it would,” he said.
In recent years, some airlines have shifted to larger planes that can carry more people, but that has not been enough to make up for an overall reduction in flights.
The rate at which passengers with tickets were denied seats because planes were full rose to 0.97 denials per 10,000 passengers last year, compared with 0.78 in 2011.
It used to be in cases of overbookings that airlines usually could find a passenger who would volunteer to give up a seat in exchange for cash, a free ticket or some other compensation with the expectation of catching another flight later that day or the next morning. Not anymore.
“Since flights are so full, there are no seats on those next flights. So people say: ‘No, not for US$500, not for US$1,000,’” airline industry analyst Robert Mann Jr said.
However, not every airline overbooks flights in an effort to keep seats full. JetBlue and Virgin America were the industry leaders in avoiding denied boardings, with rates of 0.01 and 0.07 respectively.
United Airlines had the highest consumer complaint rate of the 14 airlines included in the report, with 4.24 complaints per 100,000 passengers. That was nearly double the airline’s complaint rate the previous year.
The complaints are regarded as indicators of a larger problem because many passengers may not realize they can file complaints with the department, which regulates airlines.
At the same time complaints were increasing, airlines were doing a better job of getting passengers to their destinations on time.
The industry average for on-time arrival rate was 81.8 percent of flights, compared with 80 percent in 2011.
The industry’s on-time performance has improved in recent years, partly due to airlines’ decision to cut back on the number of flights.
“We’ve shown over the 20 years of doing this that whenever the system isn’t taxed as much — fewer flights, fewer people, less bags — it performs better. It’s when it reaches a critical mass that it starts to fracture,” Headley said.
The report’s ratings are based on statistics kept by the department for airlines that carry at least 1 percent of the passengers who flew domestically last year.
The airlines covered in the report are Air Tran, Alaska, American, American Eagle, Delta, ExpressJet, Frontier, Hawaiian, JetBlue, SkyWest, Southwest, United, US Airways and Virgin America.
The research is sponsored by Purdue University in Indiana and Wichita State University in Kansas.