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Behind rising air travel complaints: mergers and ever-shrinking seats

Customer satisfaction tends to drop when airline mergers are under way, say researchers who released the Airline Quality Rating for 2012 on Monday. Squeezing more passengers onto each plane does, too. 

By Correspondent / April 8, 2013

A Delta Airlines Airbus A320 passenger jet taxis at the Salt Lake City international airport, in Salt Lake City, Utah, in Nov. 2012. Delta will take delivery on new Microsoft Surface Pro tablets for their aircraft fleet.

George Frey/Reuters/File

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Complaints from airline passengers in the US increased in 2012, as higher demand meant more travelers were being squeezed onto flights, an annual airline rating report found.

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Staff writer

Allison Terry works on the web team at the Christian Science Monitor, coordinating online infographics. She contributes to the culture section and Global News blog, and previously reported and edited for the national news and cover page desks.

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The 14 largest US airlines did improve their on-time performance and lost less baggage, according to the annual Airline Quality Rating (AQR) report released Monday. Nonetheless, customer complaints rose 20 percent, from 1.2 per 100,000 passengers in 2011 to 1.4 per 100,000 passengers in 2012. The number of involuntary denied boardings was also higher in 2012, the report said.

Among the reasons for the jump in the complaint rate: airline mergers and the hiccups in schedules and customer service that often come with them, say the report's authors. Since the early 2000s, the industry has been in an era of consolidation, said one of them, Dean Headley, associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University in Kansas. The researchers have noticed negative trends in customer satisfaction when airlines merge.

“Past AQR data suggests that the combining of two large air carrier operations often results in subsequent decreases in AQR rankings,” said Brent Bowen, report co-author and head of the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University in Indiana, in a statement.

Mr. Headley adds: “When you look at the past 13 years, you find that the airline industry performs most efficiently when the system isn't stressed by high passenger volume and high number of airplanes in the air. Every time there are more planes in the sky and more people flying, airline performance suffers."

It’s no surprise that performance is suffering, Headley told the Associated Press, especially as airlines shrink the sizes of seats and bathrooms to fit more people on board each plane.

"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," he said. "People are saying, 'Look, I don't fit here. Do something about this.' At some point airlines can't keep shrinking seats to put more people into the same tube."

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